2. Which French Bank?
2.1. French High Street Banks
There are eight main high street retail banks in France, as follows:
- Crédit Agricole (CA)
- BNP Paribas
- Société Générale
- Caisse d‘Epargne (CE)
- Banque Populaire (BP)
- Crédit Mutuel
- La Banque Postale
LCL (formerly Crédit Lyonnais) is owned by Crédit Agricole, although it continues to operate a separate branch network.
Likewise, Caisse d’Epargne and the Banque Populaire have merged their activities (now called 'Groupe BPCE'), although they are continuing to operate their retail branch networks as separate entities.
Société Générale also subsumed Crédit du Nord and from 2023 branches of the two banks will be under a single regional brand, eg SG Crédit du Nord (Lille) ; SG Grand-Ouest (Rennes) ; SG Grand-Est (Strasbourg); SG Sud-Ouest (Bordeaux).
Credit Mutual has a national subsidiary bank called CIC (Crédit Industriel et Commercial) that operates a separate branch network.
International buyers may also be familiar with Crédit Foncier (CF), the specialist mortgage arm of Caisse d'Epargne. CE have decided to close CF due to a lack of business.
BNP Paribas are also owners of Abbey France, a former subsidiary of Abbey National, now subsumed under their mortgage subsidiary BNP Paribas International Buyers.
Most of the banks are organised on a mutual, cooperative basis, with distinct regional origins, such as Crédit Agricole, Caisse d’Epargne, Crédit Mutuel and Banque Populaire.
Others are more traditional in their top-down structures, such as Société Générale, BNP Paribas and LCL.
It may surprise you to learn that the largest bank by number of customers (10 million) and branch network is the French post office, who call their bank 'La Banque Postale'.
Not only is its branch network larger than all the others put together, but it has generally offered the cheapest rates. La Poste is also open on a Saturday morning, which is not always the case with the other banks.
On the downside, the amount you can withdraw from La Poste without prior notice is generally lower than other banks, their international money transfer system has lagged behind other banks, and transfers within the EU are more expensive than other banks. The level of customer service within some of the older and busier post offices can also be poor.
Nevertheless, since June 2020 their money transfer system has improved, with the introduction of Instant Payment international (SEPA) money transfers offered in collaboration with Société Générale. The system is called Transactis.
Most of the banks have substantially reduced their branch network in recent years, with an increased focus on locating in urban areas and developing their on-line offer.
Crédit Agricole will be more widely known by most readers and has th the largest network in rural areas. It operates on a mutual basis with 41 regional banks in which CA is the major shareholder. Their charges are also generally amongst the best you can find on the High Street, although they vary by region.
Although you will be able to use, withdraw and pay in at a Crédit Agricole ATM machine and branches throughout the country at no extra charge, there are slight differences in charging policies between the regions.
Crédit Agricole operate their English speaking Britline service, but it is run by CA Normandie, so unless you live in Normandy you might as well open an account with an internet bank. Their bank charges compare unfavourably to those of the internet banks. Most banks in France now have English speaking staff in their offices, as is the case with most on-line banks.
Although not a retail bank, one of the most interesting offers on the market is the Multi-Currency Account from Wise (formerly Transferwise), who offer an account with a Mastercard, for which there is no annual charge. The company do not offer loans or overdrafts, but it is easy to open an account with them without the need for an address in France, and their charges are very reasonable. A similar offer is available from Revolut, a British Fintech company, although their basic account has limited functionality and there is a monthly charge for an account with more features, although such an account will permit trading in currencies. Both Wise and Revolut also both offer savings accounts, with a high level of interest payable. However, as neither of them have a banking licence (they are both Fintechs), savers are not protected by deposit laws. Nevertheless, the schemes are strongly guaranteed and look an interesting option for some savings.
One problem with such banks in the past has been that they have not always had a French IBAN. Tax offices and some other public bodies will not accept a bank transfer unless the account is France/SEPA compliant, despite that being contrary to EU law, which states that any European IBAN can be used throughout Europe. Since 2022 Transferwise offer a compliant (Belgium) IBAN, and since 2022 Revolut also offer a French IBAN on specific request.
Many US nationals find it difficult to open a bank account in France, due to the 'FATCA' (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) law in the US, which obliges all banks that have accounts for US nationals to share information with the US authorities on pain of fines if they do not comply. Such are the demands made on banks by this law that many High Street banks are unwilling to take on US nationals. One solution in many cases is to open an account with one of the 'neo' on-line banks, such as Transferwise or Revolut.
Alternatively, if the bank does not respond to an application to open an account, a 'tacit refusal' rule can apply, and you have the right to complain to the Banque de France, who will designate a bank to open an account for you. You will need proof of the request to open the account.
During 2023 several banks in the US and a bank in Switzerland had to be rescued. These cases raised concerns about the strength of banks in France, which we addressed in an article in France Insider, which you can find at How Safe is your Money in a French Bank?.
Next: International Banking
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