Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Using banks and banking in France (Can be a Hassle)

This account may just be personal experience but numbers of French and other friends recount similar experiences.

When I moved to France some years ago I chose my bank because it was housed in the prettiest building in town. How pleasant to go there once or twice a month. I don't suppose the other banks are much better in terms of service but they're in unattractive modern buildings.

The first thing I noticed is that when you ask the cash machine for a balance it prints out a ticket on which the most recent data is several days old. Not much use when you want to know if there are enough funds in the account to pay your mortgage and electricity bill tomorrow.

If you go into the bank to speak to a cashier, here's what happens. You do the usual thing of going through the two anti-bank raid doors, pressing the little buttons to get through each one. You stand in a long queue in front of a desk with three chairs for bank cashiers but only - ever - one cashier. Everyone in front of you pulls a huge dossier out of their bag when their turn comes to speak with the cashier and starts rifling through dozens of pages. You eye the clock and see it's nearly midday. Eventually you get to speak to the cashier and she advises you that, for a balance, you have to go to the cash machine.

In general, there doesn't seem to be anyone in the branch who can tell you much about activity on your account. The other day I asked if Peugeot have cancelled the direct debit I was paying for a car lease. The cashier said the system doesn't show her that. So what should I do? They have to cancel it apparently, not me. "Oh" she said breezily "wait till next month, then if they take money for a car you don't have any more, go and see them and ask them to cancel the debit." Er, OK. It could be more organised than that though couldn't it?

Putting money in the account can be as frustrating as finding out what's in there or finding out what's going out. My local branch doesn't have a cash 'depot' facility but a branch twelve kilometres away does. So I drive over there and pay cash in. You get fairly used to doing that and you get to trust the system. Wrongly. One Sunday evening I went to pay cash in to cover a direct debit on the Tuesday morning. The facility wasn't available. Depot just wasn't there as an option on the menu that day. The next day was Monday - the bank was closed, so the bill went unpaid and I got debited for the bank's work of not paying.

A few weeks late I resumed paying depots to the account as depot had reappeared on the menu. Again, I paid money in to cover the mortgage and a bill. A message appeared on the screen saying in French: "Following an incident we couldn't count your money." Occasionally when that happens, the notes pop out of the machine, but this time they stayed in it. Then the screen reverted to the other options - 'obtain a balance' and so on. My euros had been swallowed up and I had no evidence I'd paid them in. I spoke to the surveillance camera for a moment. Waved my arms around a bit. Then went home.

The next day I went to see the manager of my own branch who didn't seem to know customers could make a depot at the other branch. He was fascinated by my account of losing my money. I asked him what would happen now? "Oh" he said breezily "someone will count the money and realise there's too much and we'll sort it out." Ahah. OK. Any idea who? Or when?
He sucked in his breath. Hard to say really.
Well, who collects the cash? How often?
Um, not bank staff. Some sub-contractors. About once a week, he thought.
What's to stop them putting my euros in their pocket?
He laughed. No, they wouldn't do that. No no.
He'd make enquiries and call me to let me know when the problem was rectified.

Well he never did. Ten days later I went back to the branch, passed through the anti-bank raid doors, stood in a long queue, watched as each customer hauled a huge dossier out of their bag when they reached the cashier, looked at the clock as it got near to midday, and finally reached the cashier. I explained the history of the problem. I'd lost hundreds of euros; I'd spoken to the bank manager. (I had a medium-sized dossier myself now.) And she said breezily "Oh, you need to go to the cash machine for a balance."
"But can't you look at the system and see what's happening on the account?"
Charming smile and a further calm encouragement to go to the cash machine.
"Go and have a look" she said. "I expect it'll be all right."

So I went to have a look and, this being France, it was.

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