At the Intersection of Semiology and Ideology: Mythologies of National Images in the Design of French Coins and Paper Money
The aim of this paper is to analyze national narratives of the French francs of 1954–1956 from the perspective of Roland Barthes’ «Mythologies», which demystifies bourgeois myths produced during the mentioned period. Although «Mythologies» doesn’t examine visual design of money, the book proposes analytical instruments that help to understand why coins and paper money qua material products of ideology depict certain images in certain historical periods.
The main character on French coins in 1954–1956 is Marianne, the personification of French Republic. Together with the image of Gallic rooster they represent revolutionary ideals of the First Republic. These connotations are of special significance following the WWII when the Vichy regime used the symbols signifying relations with the Nazi Germany.
The banknotes in circulation during 1954–1956 in France have two trends in visual design. The early post-war series portray famous persons, ordinary people, allegories and ancient gods, including female images which, in contrast to feminine Marianne, are designed mostly as androgynes. The new series of banknotes promotes the national narrative of masculine «Frenchness» and depicts such persons as Victor Hugo, Cardinal Richelieu, Henry IV, Napoleon Bonaparte and Moliere. The only woman to be included in visual design of French banknotes in 1994, although not French by birth, is Marie Curie.
Visual design of banknote series issued for the former French colonies (Africa and Indochina) draws on highly exotic images of local people and rarely includes characters from metropolitan discourse, which correlates with the photograph of African soldier in French uniform analyzed by Barthes in his «Myth Today». Another interesting point is that during the WWII the Vichy regime issued banknotes with the images of colonial people as well as of French people, which makes them equal in the visual representations loyal to the Nazi Germany.
To conclude, although most French coins and banknotes of 1954–1956 portray famous people or figures that appeal to national idea, these images do not constitute the unified myth system and instead demonstrate different aspects of «Frenchness». After the Euro was introduced in France in 2003, French national narratives could only be promoted with Euro coins depicting the portrait of Marianne (which became a tradition in French visual design of money). The portrait of Europa, included in the Euro banknote series in 2014, also follows this tradition and frames European discourse in chronological, geographical and political senses. However, in the context of dematerialization of money the tendency to use visual design as an ideological tool is problematic.