A surge in prices to all-time highs has galvanized the French retail gold market, for long a dusty corner beloved of coin investors, drawing in ordinary punters but also the unwelcome attention of armed robbers.

In a week in which market jitters about debt risks hit France and its banking sector, growing demand was apparent on rue Vivienne, close to the old Paris stock exchange and home to Paris' gold brokers where shops reported a wave of new customers.

"It's the first time I have seen people queuing, there's never been that," said Romain, a collector who regularly visits the gold merchants' district.

Among gold converts, Rachid, a barman working in the French capital, said he had bought over 2,000 euros in mini gold bars.

"I'm anticipating a future crisis and I think gold can go higher," he said.

Gold prices hit a record above $1,800 an ounce this week as investors rattled by a debt crisis in Europe and the United States, and fears of a further economic downturn sought refuge in the precious metal.

A series of records for gold since a global financial crisis in 2008 has already stoked interest in gold among a wider public, beyond the seasoned collectors who regularly flock to secure limited-edition gold coins issued by the French mint.

Gold prices eased from their high on Thursday, cooled by a rebound in share prices and a hike in margins required for trading in U.S. gold futures.

But gold investment firms say the rally is far from over in a context of debt-laden governments and uncertain economic growth, with Goldmoney founder James Turk reaffirming his outlook for gold at $8,000 sometime in 2013-2015.


CPoR Devises, the biggest supplier of gold to the physical market in France, said it had recorded a 50 percent increase in the daily volume of transactions since July 15, with a clear bias toward buying.

Cumulative sales of the company's mini-bars, which it launched last November to tap into growing interest in gold, reached the one-tonne mark this week, a spokesman said, with the smallest denominations -- 50 and 100 grams -- seeing the most units sold.

CPoR's latest daily prices, which act as a benchmark for the French market, put the 50 gram mini-bar at 2,140 euros, compared with 41,200 euros for the traditional one-kilo bar.

The Napoleon, France's popular 20-franc collection coin, was quoted at 281 euros.

Paris brokers also reported selling interest from gold owners looking to profit from high prices.

Some households have opted to sell jewelry or other objects via recently established internet dealers, another sign of the changing French market.

But consumer associations warn that complaints have emerged from customers taken aback by low prices paid and without any recourse once they have sent off their items.

A far more dangerous aspect of this interest in gold in France has been an extra motivation for armed robbers to target jewelry shops rather than more tightly protected banks.

There were 183 armed robberies of jewelers in the first half of 2011, up from 138 in the year-earlier period, according to OCLCO, a French police agency that tackles organized crime.

"If gold is a safe haven for people with savings, it is also becoming it would seem a safe haven for armed robbers," Frederic Doidy, an officer with OCLCO, said.

(Writing by Gus Trompiz, editing by William Hardy)