A Not So Subtle Message: Coins of Vichy France

VIchy france coin 1944

Coins are one of the most basic ways governments have historically spoken to their people. Frequently, they tell you who is in charge. In the Roman Empire, money traveled faster than news. A change of portraits on coinage was how people often learned there was a new emperor. Many monarchies, including today’s constitutional monarchies, continue to put the king or queen on their money. Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, is not only on her own country’s money but also on that of all the independent Commonwealth nations.

Non-monarchies, on the other hand, generally do not. Even megalomaniacs like Stalin and Hitler never put their faces on coinage. In the United States, it’s illegal to put a living person’s likeness on money. The law was passed in 1873 after several people put themselves on US paper money.

But just because you don’t stamp your face on a coin doesn’t mean you can’t use the coin for propaganda. French coins have traditionally born the name Republique Francaise (Republic of France, also abbreviated to RF, even on today’s French euros) the national motto liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity),and the image of Marianne, the embodiment of France, liberty, and reason.

French coin with Marianne
French coin from the 1980s with the image of Marianne on one side and the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité on the other.

During WWII, when France was occupied by Germany, Marianne vanished from the coinage, and the country was labeled Etat Francais (the French State). Most disturbingly, the motto was changed to travail, famille, patrie (work, family, fatherland). The Nazis made it very clear right there on the coinage: no more liberty or equality for you, and the French were reminded of it every time they made a purchase.

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