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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 17:39 GMT
Are banks ready for the euro?
French banks have hired extra staff to cope with the changeover
French banks have hired extra staff to cope with the changeover
by Rory Mulholland in Paris

Millions of French men and women may be facing the imminent arrival of the euro with some trepidation, but French banks say they expect no major problems when the new currency hits the street in just under a month.

"Ninety-eight percent of the work is already done," says Bruno Milano, director of a Paris branch of CCF, which was taken over last year by the global banking giant HSBC.

"Now all that has to be done is the supply of the euro notes and the coins," he says.

His upbeat assessment is shared by the FBF, the French banking federation.

"Everything is going according to the scenario we set out," said the FBF's Colette Cova.

Meeting business needs

Mr Milano's branch is in the 11th arrondissement of the city, not far from the Bastille area. His 18-strong staff look after the accounts of several thousand customers.

Most of these are individual accounts, but the 800 business accounts make up 60% of the branch's turnover.

"We began the preparations about two years ago," Mr Milano explains. "One person in each branch was designated to be a euro specialist and that person went for training, and then he or she in turn trained the others in the branch."

"We went to see our business customers to see how they were organised - could their software could handle the euro, how they saw the arrival of the new currency, what measures they'd taken, what training they'd had.

We even ourselves organised training courses for some of our customers."

Mr Milano and his colleagues advised retail outlets to lower their minimum limit for credit or debit card payments - which is usually 50 or 100 francs (7.6 or 15.2 euros) - in the first weeks of the euro to reduce their demand for cash.

This will be especially high because for the first two months they still will be accepting payment in francs but will be giving change in euros.

Preparing the customers

He says that on the whole individual customers are well prepared for the new currency.

They're used to seeing prices in the shops in both francs and euros, most of their salaries are now paid in euros, and they've all received their euro chequebooks.

This confidence is borne out by a recent survey on French attitudes to the euro.

The survey, commissioned by the Economics Ministry, showed that 54% of the French said at the end of last month that they were confident about the new currency. This was up from 47% two months earlier.

Those who were worried said the biggest problem would be converting from francs to euros.

Information campaign

In the lobby of Mr Milano's CCF branch there is a "Euro Stand" where customers can pick up the bank's latest information sheet on the new currency. This is part of the wider information campaign carried out by the bank.

This includes newspaper advertisements, a euro section on its website, and a daily two-minute sponsored spot on a classical music radio station during which experts in various fields discuss the meaning and the impact of the euro.

It complements the French government's euro information campaign, on which it has lavished 45m euros (25m, $40m).

The latest CCF information sheet on the "Euro Stand" reminds customers that their accounts were switched to euros on October 18.

It shows pictures of all the new coins and explains what details to look out for in the notes to avoid being given forgeries.

It also tells them how they can get a preview of the euro by coming to the bank on December 14 or 15.

"For 100 francs customers will get a little bag containing an example of each of the new euro coins," explains Mr Milano. "But for the notes they'll have to wait until January 1."

"Our cash dispensers have been programmed to start supplying euros from midnight on New Year's Eve. There are two drawers in the dispensers, one in francs and the second in euros. At one minute past midnight on January 1 they'll switch to euros."

Security fears

Banks and many large stores began receiving their supplies of euro coins in September.

Delivery of the new notes starts in December. Mr Milano declines to talk of the massive security problems this will pose beyond saying that "security will be heightened".

The months ahead will be busy, he admits.

"Obviously there will be a rush of customers in the first weeks of next year coming in to get their euros, and to change their francs," he says.

But he insists that his branch and the CCF in general, which has a further 200 branches across France, will take it all in its stride.

Two hundred and fifty staff who are usually based in the bank's headquarters on the Champs-Elysees will be going out to the branches from 14 December until the middle of February to help out with the switchover.

A further 350 temporary staff who have also had special training will also be taken on for the same period.

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