Recession-weary Italians catch nostalgia for lira
ROME (Reuters) - Twelve years since Italy introduced the euro, the national mint is still stamping Italian lire - and recession fatigue means nostalgia for the retired national currency is going strong.
For Italy, one of the world's biggest government debtors, the price of sharing a currency strengthened by economies like Germany's has been years of budget cuts, tax hikes and economic stagnation.
Now Italians are snapping up gold and silver reproductions of their old currency. Publisher Editalia, majority-owned by the Italian mint, says sales of its coin and commemorative book collections reached more than 25 million euros ($34 million) last year.
The lira may have brought double-digit inflation, but its frequent devaluations boosted Italy's exports - and meant the government could always repay its lira debts.
The success of Editalia's reproduction lira coins and illustrated books about their history reflects widespread nostalgia for a currency first used in 1861 and whose notes once featured sculptor Lorenzo Bernini, painter Caravaggio and inventor Guglielmo Marconi.
But it also reflects Italians' growing dismay - if accompanied by begrudging acceptance - at how the country has fared since it joined the euro. Though Italy's economic woes - high debt, low growth and an inefficient public sector - predate the euro's launch, many people feel betrayed by promises that sharing a European currency would boost their living standards.
Instead, Italy's economy is now smaller than it was when euro coins and notes first appeared in tills. Unemployment has risen, and the country is struggling to emerge from its worst recession since World War II.
Even so, only one in five Italians says they want to restore the lira, according to the latest survey by pollster Piepoli Institute. Levels of euroscepticism are much higher elsewhere in the currency bloc: in Latvia, which adopted the euro this month, polls showed opinion split down the middle.
But the euro is increasingly a focus for Italian frustration with record joblessness and shrinking incomes.
During last February's national elections, anti-euro sentiment fuelled the success of the 5-Star Movement, which gained 25 percent of the vote partly on party leader Beppe Grillo's proposal that Italians should be polled on whether to stay in the euro. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's courting of eurosceptics - saying that leaving the euro should not be "blasphemy" - also helped him to an electoral comeback that forced the centre-left Democratic Party into an uneasy alliance with Italy's conservative forces.
Anti-euro protests have gathered steam in the run-up to European parliamentary elections in May, and Prime Minister Enrico Letta has warned that discontent with EU-driven austerity could divert votes to anti-euro groups.
"We must return to the lira. We want the money that represents this nation," said Giuseppe Rinaldi, a 21-year-old security guard from Rome who joined the anti-government, anti-euro 'Pitchfork' protests moving across the country.
Many appear to have forgotten the lira's weakness. A tiny cup of coffee cost more than 1,200 lire, and 10,000 lire was the equivalent of about 5 euros. The proliferation of zeroes may have helped Italy sell its goods abroad but devaluation also drove up import costs and eroded the value of savings.
Editalia's lira series drew on more heroic inspiration, the 150th anniversary of Italy's 1871 unification. Before that, the boot-shaped peninsula was a patchwork of different kingdoms and Papal States, a history reflected in deep regional divisions and a common preference for local interests over the state.
"The lira was a unit of exchange to buy things, but it was also an element of the unification of this country. It was a fundamental part of the national identity," said Marco De Guzzis, Chief Executive of Editalia. "Every coin is a mode of exchange, but it's also the story of a people."
That national pride is evoked in television advertising for the 'History of the Lira' collection by a gravelly-voiced older man fondly recalling the days when Italy had its own currency.
"When I see that ad I want to cry," said Rino Bianchi, 40, a Rome office worker. "Things were better when we had the lira, so certainly there is nostalgia for it. There was more work and more money around."
Most coin buyers said they knew the euro was here to stay - but still hoped to keep the lira's memory alive.
"Now we are in the euro, and we will keep on with it," said pensioner Gianni Fratini, 70, who has bought all three volumes of the 'History of the Lira'. "But the lira is our history. It is nice to have something to remember it by."
Rome doctor Benedetto Condorelli, 60, said his collection of gold lira coins was mainly for his children. The euro, he said "has brought disadvantages. But it wouldn't be easy to go back."
($1 = 0.7324 euros)
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing By Alessandra Galloni/Ruth Pitchford)