Guide to Banking in France
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
Since 2003 LCL (formerly Crédit Lyonnais) has been owned by Crédit Agricole, although it continues to operate a separate branch network.
Likewise, in 2009 Caisse d’Epargne and the Banque Populaire merged their activities (now called 'Groupe BPCE'), although they are continuing to operate their retail branch networks as separate entities.
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, 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 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. Until January 2009 it also had exclusive rights (along with Caisse d’Epargne) to a popular and attractive savings scheme called Livret A. 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 lags 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.
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.
Next: International Banking
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