petite anglaise

March 31, 2005

stand and deliver

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:16 pm

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.

Vive l’Europe!


  1. God – it sounds so complicated! I just took it for granted that I can use my debit card to take money out anywhere in Europe free of charge, and it seems to work (except here in the UK, when you stumble on a horrible Link ATM).

    I had a nightmare getting a credit card here though when I returned from a year away – I couldn’t get one until I got a mobile phone, which had to be registered in my mum’s name because they wouldn’t let me open an account unless I had a credit card. And it’s impossible to do loads of things here if you don’t have a credit card, like hire a car. Anyway, back to work… Got to pay off the enormous balance.

    Comment by rachie — March 31, 2005 @ 1:18 pm

  2. Petite,

    I had no idea you had been a fausse-normande prior to being a fausse-parisienne! Are Yvetot and Paris your only experienced French locations, or have you been all over the place?

    Comment by kim — March 31, 2005 @ 1:19 pm

  3. Do you know on this blog I can smell the pain au chocolat .

    Comment by Root — March 31, 2005 @ 1:20 pm

  4. Vive l’Europe indeed Petite- while in France you suffer from the near-impossibility of obtaining credit, here in the UK we are sinking under a daily deluge of offers. My post these days is made up 75% of junk mail selling loans and credit cards- mostly from recognised banks and financial institutions, but also from less likely sources; both British Gas and the AA (Automobile Association) have offered to lend me money recently! No wonder so many people succumb to the temptation to run up multiple debts running into thousands.

    It seems France and the UK are really poles apart here- a happy medium would be nice! I wonder if such a thing exists anywhere? Be interesting to see what your US readers have to say.

    Comment by jonathan — March 31, 2005 @ 1:22 pm

  5. Since being in France, I have spent enough in bank fees to open a new branch of the Société Générale.
    My husband thinks I am crazy, but I am SURE that it would be more economical to close our accounts and keep the money in a sock hidden under the mattress.

    Comment by sammy — March 31, 2005 @ 1:22 pm

  6. Thank you root. Now I want one.

    Kim – I spent a year in Rouen, where I had my very first (moody little toy boy) Frog. It was my third year of university. I came to Paris once I’d got my degree.

    So indeed I know Le Havre, Etretat, Honfleur, that village with a treehouse thing in it and Deaville/Trouville all rather well.

    Comment by petite — March 31, 2005 @ 1:27 pm

  7. Banks oy vey! In Italy, we have to pay a two Euro charge for every ATM withdrawal from a bank other than our own and have a 600 Euro/month cap on our bank card, which often means embarrassing moments at the supermarket checkout near the end of the month. Bank transfer? That’ll be 15 Euros, please.

    *bites tongue*

    Comment by Ria — March 31, 2005 @ 1:51 pm

  8. It’s weird you should say Britain throws credit at people…I have had exactly the opposite experience.

    I moved to the US with a cash card only for my UK bank account before I was 18. I had a check book, a debit card and a credit card in the US, so it seemed pointless to apply for such things in the UK.

    Little did I know, on my return four years later, the UK credit rating system had decided, thanks to four years of making withdrawals abroad, that I was unworthy of even a checkbook, let alone a debit card.

    The knock on effect of this is that I can’t open a bank account at all in France, they think I’m dodgy because my home country won’t give me cheques. Which is a reasonable assumption I suppose…

    Anyway, I can’t use my US bank because paying my salary into it electronically would make my salary disappear, so the only way of depositing $$ over there is to mail travellers checks to a friend who does it for me.

    What is my british bank’s advice on all this? How am I to extricate myself from this situation? “You should get a commercial credit card, like capital one (no plug intended they suck) and use it and pay it off every month.”

    I hate banks. Up with socks under mattresses. Except that way I can’t buy stuff online.

    Comment by EasyJetsetter — March 31, 2005 @ 1:57 pm

  9. Petite. Pandora’s Box. French Banks.
    I went to the swish, helpful-staff-free, newly opened Societe Generale branch up the road a couple of months ago to get launderette change, as my washing machine had apparently joined some greve or other. “We don’t have change here”, said the slouching, solitary member of staff. Of course you don’t, you’re a bank. How could I have BEEN so stupid?

    And don’t get me started on Credit Agricole. The World’s 5th biggest bank, apparently. Boggling doesn’t come close.

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — March 31, 2005 @ 2:06 pm

  10. I think the trend in the UK is going back towards not charging fees for withdrawals from standard bank machines, but instead you get those stupid little “cashboxes” all over the place now – in pubs, shops and (annoyingly) motorway service stations – which do charge a one-off fee. I don’t use those ones unless I’m desperate. There are plenty which don’t charge.

    When I lived in France, I left my card in the cashpoint on a couple of occasions. It gave me the cash before giving the card back, which obviously confused me as it’s always the other way round over here…

    Comment by witho — March 31, 2005 @ 2:27 pm

  11. Well I will say this about Credit Agricole- they do a very nice line in cycling racing shirts (available to purchase over the internet by people who do not keep their money in a sock under the mattress). I sport a natty lycra green one on my daily 5km ‘etage’ from the Manchester suburbs to the town centre. Although judging from your comment, Jim, it seems perhaps I would be less keen to display their colours if I ever had to actually deal with them.

    Comment by jonathan — March 31, 2005 @ 2:34 pm

  12. :idea: I heard just yesterday that it is possible to get a mortgage in euros from a UK bank to buy property in France. Why should you? Longer repayment terms and when considering your income they look at your pre- tax income (brut)instead of after tax (net) as is the case in France. Have you tried asking a UK bank what you could borrow, petite? Maybe you could afford something a bit bigger than a broom cupboard…:razz:

    Comment by suziboo — March 31, 2005 @ 2:50 pm

  13. French Banks-
    In order (as a foreigner) to have an account- I had to have a 2000GBP ‘Block’ ie a deposit to show I was a ‘serious’ customer. I’m not allowed to spend any of this, or have a cheque book, or withdraw over 500 Euros a month. In fact, when I first had my account I was allowed up to 50 Euros a week, or 300 in a 4 week period! Well – obviously, since I didnt have a job, I SHOULDN’T BE SPENDING MONEY should I? If I had a letter of salary intent from an employer, then that would have been different.
    (Which bank? The wonderful BNP since you ask…apparently their central branch (Bvd des Italiens) staff are fluent in English…really? If fluent english means saying everything in very clear, very slow French, then My, yes they are!)
    Admittedly, they have put my ‘block’ in a nice savings account (or rather- for reasons best known to themselves- TWO savings accounts!) which earns interest at eurozone rates, so is now making me 130 euros a year! Wahey! Just enough for that lovely shirt in Agnes B…..

    Comment by Joy — March 31, 2005 @ 2:55 pm

  14. I was an assistante myself last year in sunny Aurillac, and was amazed at the strictures of the banking system. On order to open an account with the “Banque Populaire”, I was obliged to copy out by hand great chunks of financial French prose, with a particularly bossy teacher from the school urging me on to make sure I didn’t have time to read any of it. Perplexed by the charges for obtaining a debit card, etc, I once tried asking the branch staff why they charged so much, explaining that English banks seemed to be able to cover their costs from the interest they made on the deposited cash. “Ah,” they replied, “ici on ne joue pas avec votre argent.” Fantastic. You can see why their slogan, “Nous ne sommes pas populaires sans raisons”, was often repeated in our flat with a rather ironic ring to it.

    Comment by Rhiannon — March 31, 2005 @ 3:03 pm

  15. I think there are good and bad things from both sides of the channel.

    For example, I have had free internet banking in the UK for ages, whereas it took me weeks/months/years (tick which applies) to convince my French bank to do the same. I also have an interest free overdraft limit in the UK, whereas I don’t in France and I don’t get charged anything in the UK for “normal services” whereas my French bank charges me for my differed debit card.

    On the other hand, I think the UK credit card system is very bad in that it uses revolving credit where people who don’t pay their balance in full at the end of the month get charged (rather steep) interest on the outstanding balance, and can very quickly accumulate debts.. The French differed debit cards is much better I think. Also, it’s next to impossible in UK to get a fixed rate mortgage for the length of the mortgage whereas it’s standard practice in France.

    I think as you said, it’s a question of mentality: French people borrow very little and only buy what they can afford (more or less). The English have a tendency to borrow a lot more.

    Comment by Froggie — March 31, 2005 @ 3:09 pm

  16. Suziboo, I was wondering about that- all these British people having TV documentaries made about their attempts to buy ramshackle French farmhouses and convert them into dream homes must be getting their money from somewhere. I do hope they are not being paid for out of our TV licences! Although I might make an exception to fund a special Parisian episode of ‘Location Location Location’ with our heroes Petite, Frog and Tadpole.

    Comment by jonathan — March 31, 2005 @ 3:10 pm

  17. Oh, and I still get charged for transferring money between France and UK (although it’s not very clear how much the charge actually is).

    Comment by Froggie — March 31, 2005 @ 3:11 pm

  18. Oooh. Here in the states, they’ll give you credit for anything. Need to by a set of tires…finance it. Need to by a cute new outfit…finance it. Need to buy a Big Mac…finance it.

    When I was in college, with no job, I was offered a multitude of credit cards. I actually had three cards before my first job. Of course, giving an 18 year old a $1000 credit limit is probably not the best plan, but the credit card companies didn’t mind, the just let me pay it off for 6 or 7 years. Aren’t they sweet?

    As to atm charges, over here you are charged $2 – $2.50 if you use an atm that isn’t with your bank. That means that your bank charges you a fee for using a non-bank atm, and the atm charges you a fee as well. Congress swears they are trying to change this, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Although I do get free online banking, free checking, free wire transfers, and a savings account with a good interest rate in addition to my checking account, so the banks aren’t all that bad.

    Comment by Teleri — March 31, 2005 @ 3:40 pm

  19. YES! Send Kirstie and Phil over. NOW!

    Comment by petite — March 31, 2005 @ 3:55 pm

  20. I dont think Kirstie & Phil actually fork out for the house themselves…

    Does anyone use the CCF? As a subsid of HSBC I wondered if their customers get better service than your average Crédit (but not respect) Mutuel.

    Comment by l'autre — March 31, 2005 @ 4:06 pm

  21. l’autre : CCF. No. The fact that you have an account with HSBC in the UK is of absolutely no relevance in France. And woe betide you should you even suggest that it might make a difference.

    I remember having walking into the Lloyds branch in Cannes to naively ask if it were possible to access some of the money on my English account (I was 18 and seriously broke – not ideal in Cannes). I made my excuses and left, but I can still hear the laughter now…

    As regards the essays that oyou are obliged to fill out every time you subscribe to anything with a bank, they are apparently essential. I’m told that they’re also completely meaningless from a legal point of view, but the banks appear to hold them dear. And despite all that I now work for a French bank (albeit not on the retail side).

    Comment by Rich — March 31, 2005 @ 4:24 pm

  22. A positive development over the last few years seems to be that French cash machines now accept EC/maestro cards and not just credit cards or the Carte Blanche (whatever that was, if I’m even calling it the right name). I used to spend ages traipsing around looking for a branch of the Societe Generale bank which did accept EC cards. I was never even sure if I had a PIN number for my credit card, let alone what it might be. Whatever the cost, it does seem easier these days to get cash in France as a non-resident.

    Comment by David — March 31, 2005 @ 4:31 pm

  23. When I worked in a ski resort sometime in the last century, my girlfriend at the time and I were told we had to have a letter attesting to our good character from the Mayor of our home town before we would be allowed an account. Despite our request, the The Lord Mayor of Sheffield never sent us that letter.

    I was also told last year by my current bank that they were “not in the business of performing miracles”.
    Oddly, I was deluded enough to think that lending money at the prevailing interest rate, secured on a property actually WAS the bank’s business.

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — March 31, 2005 @ 5:14 pm

  24. I also have fond memories of my foray into Barclays, also on place Léon Blum. Barclays in France is not related to Barclays in the UK either. The woman basically told me that you had to be rich to bank with them, I needed something like 10,000F just to open an account.

    And as for everyone else’s horror stories, well it seems I’ve hit the mother lode of topics today!!

    Comment by petite — March 31, 2005 @ 7:59 pm

  25. Come to live in Yorkshire property is reasonably priced and you could get ten application forms through the post in a week, judging by my mail box.

    Comment by Colin — March 31, 2005 @ 9:28 pm

  26. Oh I see I am not the only one to moan about banks and their charges. Here in Greece if I don’t withdraw from my own bank, I get charged 4 euros on a withdrawal of 400 euros which is daylight robbery.

    The best bank account I have had (and have still) is a bank in Lithuania (part of a Swedish bank) where I could pay all my bills on the internet and make international transfers as well.

    I won’t start on my complaints about Citibank and their Indian call centre as I am going to change as soon as I move in the summer.

    Comment by helene — April 1, 2005 @ 5:06 pm

  27. Sure, in France it’s harder to get a mortgage, you have this 33% limit and everything. It is true that our culture is much more conservative when it comes to credit.

    Now, are you really sure you prefer the British or American approach? The French language has no equivalent for “negative equity”. My humble opinion: Let’s keep it that way.

    Comment by ontario frog — April 1, 2005 @ 8:03 pm

  28. Banks? I know they are bunch of crooks…I work for one of them. And a big one.


    Comment by Chicago — April 2, 2005 @ 3:44 am

  29. Whereas back in South Africa, banks charge for – quite literally – everything. For withdrawals, deposits, and transfers, whether performed at your own bank’s ATM or even the bank counter; in fact you pay extra to transact at the counter, because you’re taking up their valuable time. You pay for every single cheque, every direct debit or standing order. On top of that of course you pay a hefty monthly fee if you want to bank online. Some banks will offer a package deal, where you pay a set monthly fee to include various transactions, but as with the French system (as described), it’s tricky to compare across banks, or to work out what’s best for you.

    Since moving to London I’ve been delighted at the luxury of not having to pay to give the bank my money (never mind manage it). Of course, that’s assuming you can open an account in the first place – not the easiest thing. But once you get that first chequebook, a whole terrifying world of credit pimps come a-knocking at your door. Still, pleasant to have free banking.

    Comment by Scroobious — April 2, 2005 @ 3:28 pm

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