France: Losing Bet

For a tumultuous 30 minutes every afternoon, traders mill around a closed-off corbeille on the Paris Bourse to buy and sell gold for French banks. Much of the activity centers on a hoary, 20-franc gold piece known as the Napoleon—and when the market opened last week, an unprecedented buying spree sent the Napoleon's price soaring to its highest level in 15 years. At 50.4 francs ($10.29), the coin was selling for a whopping 57% more than its gold content is worth at official world prices.

Such dubious investments have always had a special appeal for the gold-hoarding French. As a...

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