Banks, bollocks and shotgun weddings: A hilarious history of banking in France

 

This weekend I was planning to write a blog post about death. However, in the light of the events I had to face this morning I switched it for a different albeit similarly grim topic: French banks. Maybe I am being incredibly unlucky, I don’t know, I have gave the bad eye to a black cat under a ladder on a Friday 13th while Pluto and Mars was topsy-turvy in the Sagittarius… but really what has been going on feels like an overdriven episode of some British absurd humour show.

bank accounts in france

Let this little story serve as a good example to anyone who is mad enough to try to start a life in this beautiful but incrediclyandsuperfluouslyconvoluted country and is willing to embark on a crusade against the windmills of bureaucracy.

Alas, the heroine of our story arrives to the country of the Eiffel tower and weird culinary pleasures on the 3rd of October. She lands a job with a CDI (Contrat à durée indéterminée a.k.a. a permanent contract, a rare thing to have as a young postgraduate) within 3 weeks and decides it’s time to open a bank account. Now, everybody who has ever got in touch with France knows that paperwork is not easy. I thought I was prepared. I DIDN’T EVEN START LOOKING for a bank account until I had a job because I knew it was one even more impossible without a job. I had my first working day on the 23rd , a Friday, we went to the bank on the following day and I got an appointment for the 31st of October, the day of ghosts and monsters. All looked fine and dandy.

brace yourselves

On the day, I arrived equipped with a stack of papers: my ID, my contract, proof that I am living where I am living (the fact that it’s on my work contract doesn’t fool anyone…) I had a testimony of my boyfriend that I indeed live with him and we brought an electricity bill with his name and this address on it. Furthermore, I needed to provide my last 3 bank statements from the UK. I wrote a polite letter to my appointed bank lady if she needed the detailed statement with all my spendings or would they be content with just the summary, I didn’t receive an answer ( back then I couldn’t yet see the pattern forming here) so I printed the whole thing. (Yes, we killed trees just so that BNP Paribas could know how many times I ate junk food and went on shopping sprees in charity shops this summer. I hope they are happy with the knowledge.)

The bank lady was polite enough although she got stuck on the fact that I only had an ID card and not a passport and didn’t believe my pleas that Hungary had been in the EU for ten years now… finally we got past that (and the fact that my Hungarian ID doesn’t show the date of my arrival in France… (don’t ask me…) ) and we said our farewells in a tolerably pleasant manner. I forgot all my chagrin because the library was situated right next to the bank, I could get a membership for free and I already borrowed a few children’s books.

During the weak I received several letters from the bank saying how absolutely fabulous it was that I chose them, they sent me various codes and an invitation that I could go to fetch my card dés aujurd’hui a.k.a as soon as today. The letter was dated 3rd November and I went there on the day when I received it which was Saturday, 5th November. I was quite happy thinking things were going pretty smoothly.

Oh, I have to mention that I received my first salary in the meantime, on cheque. Yes, yes, the cheque is a nice 19th century form of payment which is very much in vogue here. The little twist is that you cannot cash the cheque out anywhere except in your bank, provided of course that you have a bank account. Which, frankly, I didn’t think was a big thing… oh moi, naïve…

Alas, I went to the bank all alone in my big confidence on the 5th of November, presenting the receptionist lady my statement that I had my card waiting for me. She looked in the computer frowning then said that my dossier wasn’t approved and with that she basically dismissed me. I stood there like a rabbit caught in a headlight and sadly couldn’t come up with any witty answer, I couldn’t stand up for myself. I dragged myself home and cried half of the afternoon in frustration. Now, having worked in customer service for more than two years I know that customers could make a scene demanding a supervisor (while breathing fire and cursing you and all your ancestors) for much much less but oh well I have a Buddhist nature, I don’t like screaming at people. I even arrived to the point when I thought I was at fault for not understanding French properly or something similar. For the next week every time I had to use money, my stomach twisted in a knot because I thought of my salary that I couldn’t use for anything and the fact that I always had to ask my bf for cash which no independent woman of good feeling would enjoy.

Next Saturday came and I marched into the bank with my very own French knight on my side,

Godefroy de Montmirail
Godefroy de Montmirail

hoping that with a native of the land we could sort this out. It was the Saturday after the dreadful events in Paris, so understandably everybody was on the edge a bit, I was still sort of optimistic. We asked the receptionist again what exactly the problem was but we didn’t get anything more than the vague “your dossier haven’t been approved.” You might wonder why you need to have anything approved when you don’t ask for money from the bank, ergo you don’t pose then any risks, you just want to keep your humble earnings some place more secure than under your pillow… the answer is I do not know. So we went home again, with growing frustration.

To understand my situation better, I will tell you that my mum works for a bank. I have some insight in how they work and honestly, they are just happy that you are a customer and you want to open an account with them. Their biggest problem is that not enough people want to be their customer. They don’t ask you to bring them a pile of paper, a sample of your first morning urine and the criminal record of your ancestors going back to three generations. Yes, dear reader, at this point you might say I am getting a bit impatient and unnecessarily sardonical and you might accuse me of lying to you about my Buddha nature, but pray thee, read on.

One more visit and we didn’t get any cleverer. We talked on the phone with my boyfriend’s parents and I poured my wretched heart’s content on his poor father. He is an extremely nice person and offered to talk to my bank lady because he knew that both me and my boyfriend can be a bit “soft,” being humanity students and all. I was extremely grateful thinking maybe the “adults” will be able to discuss matters and I would finally be able to use my hard earn money. (Hey, Christmas is coming up…)

In the meantime I tried to look up where one could file a complaint. I went to the website of BNP Paribas to find that if you had a problem, you should try to discuss it with your banking person. Ha ha, thanks for the help, I wouldn’t have thought of it by myself. What do you do, if I might ask, if you have a problem with your bank person? Nobody knows.

Anyhow, my boyfriend’s dear father talked to my bank lady. She was a bit surprised but told him that the account was open, she didn’t understand what our problem was and that I could deposit cheques from that moment on. Also, that I should call her to clarify things. I called her the next day which was this Wednesday (we are already at the 18th November) when she told me that yes “there were some problems with the dossier blah blah blah but it should be okay by now.” I was like great, could I go for (bloody) my card on Saturday. She was oh well, blah blah, I will call you back. She of course didn’t call me back. My boyfriend wrote her a polite email on Friday asking for an answer to which… wait for it…she didn’t answer.

So we went to “my” “beloved” bank this morning (Saturday, 21st October, three weeks after our initial appointment) and with that our hilarious bank crawl began. By this point God must have had some pity on me because he sent me a baby to play with until we got to the counter. The receptionist let us know that she still saw a problem with my dossier but she would call my banker. She led us to a quiet room and told us after three weeks of futile waiting that I most probably wouldn’t be able to open a bank account with them because my boyfriend, with whom I reside, was with a different bank and this was such an unbridgeable problem (and a new policy, she said) that they would rather not have me as (an unproblematic, securely employed) customer. She kindly advised us to try to open an account in my boyfriend’s bank. I almost fell off the chair in shock because I hadn’t heard such a silly thing in my life. To be honest, none of the bank employees we saw later heard about it either but well… It seems that in a ruthless capitalist world some banks can allow themselves to send away customers. She was very helpful in that she told us where we could find the closest branch of my boyfriend’s bank, that is she gently pushed us into the arms of a rival institution. I think it is the sort of thing for which in ancient China your employers would silently send you a silk thread and expect you to terminate your existence without bothering anyone anymore.

I was happy we were basically told to leave them because by that time I developed a Pavlovian reflex and anytime I heard BNP Paribas I started to growl. So please dear reader,I would like to ask you, if you want to become a part of a hilarious bureaucratic farce, by all means try to become their customer.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that the problem was that we were just “living together” in a wild, pagan, unofficial way without being married or PACSed (Pacte Civil de Solidarité, basically a civil solidarity pact, a “little marriage” without all the fuss) and this was something they couldn’t handle, especially that my “just” boyfriend was with a different bank.

Good riddance, I said. We were lucky because the bus to the neighbouring town, Nogent-sur-Marne, arrived quickly so we had a chance to find HSBC before they closed for lunch break. We got there after some wandering and the lady at the reception was very helpful. Hope sparkled in my soul.

The problems started when they asked how much I earned. I told them the sum to which she replied that unfortunately, they didn’t take on anybody who earned less than 2500 euro per month. My boyfriend was dumbfounded and said that he didn’t earn that much either. To which she replied that oh, but this was a new law. By this time, I started to be honestly fed up with new laws and policies which magically pop up just before I want to open my account. She was very helpful though and said she would try to see if they could do anything for me. By this time I decided that I didn’t want to bank with them either.

cunning plan

I told my boyfriend that there was nothing left to do, we should have a shotgun wedding. Oh how I love the violence of that word! Usually it means a rushed wedding when one of the parties involved is pregnant. Well, it was not the case with us (although we can work on it if that’s what the French State demands…) but the whole thing started to feel like The Proposal or any film which is about somebody having to marry quickly to be able to stay in the US. My boyfriend wasn’t thrilled by my cunning plan, although I quite fancied the thought of a Vegas style wedding… Then I woke up and I realised which country I was in and that most probably for a marriage shotgun weddingyou would need to go through zillion times more paperwork than for a bank account. So I had to postpone this great idea (with this probably saving our parents from a heart attack) (although my father is continuously pressuring me for grandchildren… oh well…)

We went to Societé General because one of my colleagues said that he was very pleased with them and that they were kind and open minded. We went there and somebody immediately asked how they could help us and the bank lady came out to greet us herself and she was truly nice and friendly so I have high hopes. Then another dear friend of mine said that she has a good account with the same bank and she had nothing but good experience. I wish I had asked for opinions before but I honestly couldn’t imagine that I would have so much trouble and that going for the bank closest to my home would be a bad decision.

Dear Reader, wish me good luck and please if you consider moving to France, learn from my example and make sure to choose your bank wisely.

I was treated badly and I had no means of defending myself or paying it back. I don’t believe in weapons and here in France I don’t believe in letter of complaints. However, I am a writer and I will write about the unjustice I had to go through, I won’t say anything more, I will let Mr. Chaucer present my writing motto:

Chaucer

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