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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 09:33 GMT
French criticise bank changeover
Special advisors help customers pay in euros
Special advisors help customers pay in euros
by Rory Mulholland in Paris

French banks say the changeover to the euro went swimmingly, but many of their customers are seething over what they see as inefficiency, bad manners and opportunism on the part of the country's financial institutions.

"Banks in Euro Hold-Up" was the front page headline of France Soir that neatly summed up many consumers' thoughts over the past week.

There was euro guidance for buisnesses
There was euro guidance for buisnesses
The newspaper went on to list its readers' grievances. These include accusations that some banks have been simply refusing to change francs for euros.

Others allowed only their own customers to change money and turned away any others trying to offload their last francs.

Economics Minister Laurent Fabius gave the banks a rap over the knuckles for this behaviour and told them they had to rise to the challenge that their central role in the euro changeover presented.

Confusion all round

Colette Cova of the FBF, the French banking federation, said the problem was due to people not behaving as the banks had expected.

Banks destroyed franc notes on the premises
Banks destroyed franc notes on the premises
"We thought people would come to the banks with large sums to change them into euros and would use smaller sums to make purchases in shops," she said. "But in fact almost the opposite happened, and this is what led to long queues in banks."

Another more serious accusation is that French banks are using the arrival of the European currency to bring in new charges for their customers.

Banks here are the only ones in Europe which do not charge for using cheques or for making withdrawals from cash dispensers.

There have been various attempts over the past 15 years to introduce such charges, but they have always been defeated by consumer and political hostility.

Charges on the way

Since 1 January however there has been a flurry of hints from senior bank officials that things could soon change.

The French banking federation rejects the suggestion that the euro is being used as a cover for sneaking in new charges.

"We have always said that after the euro this matter would have to be looked at," says the FBF's Colette Cova. "There is a need for French banks to harmonise their practices with their European counterparts."

Madame Cova adds that apart from lengthy queues in banks, the switch to the euro went remarkably well.

A one-day strike by bank workers on 2 January, the first day of opening in the new year, was followed by only a small minority and few bank branches had to remain closed.

No problems in Paris

Bruno Milano, director of a Paris branch of the CCF bank, says that the arrival of the new currency was relatively smooth.

"It went as we expected it would," he says. "By one o'clock in the morning on 1 January all CCF cash dispensers across France had switched to distributing euros."

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 businesses, with individual accounts making up around 30% of the total.

"The first and second day of opening after the New Year there was about double the usual number of customers in this branch. This week we're had about 30% or 40% more customers per day."

"We had no reports of serious problems from our customers who run shops," says Mr Milano. "We'd given these shopkeepers a "euro check-up" last year to find out how much they'd need and we were able to distribute what they asked for."

The franc notes received in the branch are quickly sent to the basement vault.

There a pair of workers are busy with the "trouilloteuse", a hand-operated machine that punches holes in the notes to render them invalid before they are sent back to the Banque de France for destruction.


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