I note, with some amusement, that the HM Post Office has been rapped across the knuckles for installing fee-charging cash machines in three quarters of its branches. Especially as the offending machines bear a sticker stating that they are free, when in fact only consulting your balance or last few transactions is free. Withdrawing money is not. Four out of ten UK cash machines apparently charge a minimum fee for cash withdrawals these days.
Ten years ago, when I arrived in France, employed as an English assistante at the none too aesthetically pleasing Lycée Raymond Queneau, I recall having to be very careful about using only Crédit Lyonnais ATMs (or DABs, as they are known over here) when I wanted to get my hands on my paltry paycheck. I ranted and raved that this was not, and would never be, the case in the UK, bragging that UK banks had a far superior grasp of the concept of customer service. However, over the past few years, banks in the UK seem to have been taking steps in the wrong direction. One can only hope that the mercenary French banks are not being used as their role models.
On the other side of the Channel we have to pay for the ‘privileges’ of receiving new cheque books by post, having a visa (debit) card and access to on-line banking facilities (a necessity, as I rarely now need to set foot in the horrible 70′s monstrosity that is the Caisse d’Epargne, place Léon Blum). There have been rumours that soon there will be a fee for every cheque written or cashed, and some banks are reintroducing charges for DAB withdrawals. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
Account ‘services’ are bundled into a helpful little package (forfait), which every bank concocts to a different recipe, making it tricky/impossible to compare charges between banks. Helpfully, services which I do actually use, like for instance drawing money out in the UK or making international bank transfers, are stubbornly opaque, and not detailed in the convention de comptefrais de dossier (loan processing fee), should you decide to accept their terms. It can be up to € 1,000. The French banks cannot be persuaded to lend you as much as you would get in the UK, as the repayments are capped at 33.33% of your monthly earnings before tax, and you will be expected to repay over only 15 or 20 years. 25 year mortgages exist (but banks are often reluctant to offer them) and 30 year mortgages are simply unheard of. Which is why Mr Frog and I have been priced out of the Paris property market, unless I fancy raising Tadpole, plus future potential mini-Tadpole, in a small broom cupboard.
The French do seem to have a completely different relationship with credit. They generally limit themselves to buying what they can actually afford. I do see this as A Good Thing, given the weight of credit card debt many families are struggling with in the UK, where consumers are constantly tempted to take on more debt and splash out on that three piece suite today (but pay nothing until December 2006).
Supermarkets like Auchan and Carrefour and companies like Egg (who have seriously struggled to convince the recalcitrant French that online banking is the way forward) have gone some way towards changing this mentality recently, introducing store cards which double as credit cards. My bank only offers a direct debit or a deferred debit card, however. Not that I’ve ever been able to actually obtain a credit card here. Several department stores have refused my applications, with no justification forthcoming. I suspect having a entirely blank (or ‘virginal’, as the French would say) credit record in this country and being ‘foreign’ may have something to do with it.