If you stand outside a bank in France, they look pretty much like banks do anywhere in the world.
Fortress like building, sober colour scheme, solid oak doors, a reassuring sense of permanence.
If its Monday, itâll look like banks do anywhere in the world â on a Sunday. Closed. If its lunchtime, itâll look pretty much like banks do anywhere in the world â on a Sunday. Closed. If its one of the interminable national holidays in France, itâll look pretty much like banks do anywhere in the world â on a Sunday. Closed.
If you happen to pick a day thatâs not a National holiday, not a Monday, not during the national two hour lunch break, not too early, not too late, and you can find the minuscule unlabelled button that is way above my head height, (and Iâm a good foot taller than the local dwarfs), that alerts those inside, if they are not too busy, that unaccountably, you would like to step inside â you are in for a shock, it may say HSBC outside, but prepare to be amazed. This is not just HSBC, this is HSBC France.
Your first impression will be positive. No queues of customers. No butcherâs lads with bags of uncounted coins. No bullet proof screens in front of rows of cashiers. In fact, no signs of banking life at all.
A young girl will (if you are lucky) look quisically at you, puzzled at your presence. I once made the mistake of approaching her clutching some 300 euros that I wished to pay into my acount. She recoiled in horror, leapt to her feet and ran off to get a colleague for support. I kid you not. Together they counted out the 300 euros, and placed it into a common or garden envelope which they dutifully labelled with the amount, my account number, their names, probably their dates of birth, and after much chattering amongst themselves, whilst keeping a watchful eye on me, they then proceeded to sling the envelope in a drawerâ¦â¦.I waited anxiously for my bank statement some weeks later, and sure enough there was the 300 euros in my account â it was my first intimation of the mysterious cash free world of French banks.
Banks are something your employer puts your wages in, you spend your money by means of a cash card (not credit card, unknown here!) or you draw cash out of a machine, definitely not the bank. You can of course always write a cheque, being mindful of the fact that it is a criminal offence here to write a cheque for more than you have in the bank, not only a criminal offence, but an instant offence that results in your account being closed on the spot, and notified to the central bank, which prevents you from opening any other account. No nasty letters from the bank manager, just no more bank account!
So when Mr G announced this morning that he needed a certain cash sum with which to purchase his newest toy tractor in excess of the standard 600 euro sum which is the maximum you can withdraw from a cash machine, I had to do several things.
Check my account to make quite sure that not only did I have that amount of money in situ, but also that there were no standing orders about to fall due which might leave me âoverdrawnâ and account-lessâ¦..
Phone my utterly gorgeous, swooningly good looking, bank manager and make a formal request for a cash withdrawal of more than 600 euros â yes you do have to book these sort of things in advance. Anybody would think they were a bank.
Explain exactly what I wanted the money for â money laundering and the black economy are twin obsessions here â anybody would think it was my money or something- so that a letter for their files stating my reason for wanting this vast sum in cash could be filed away.
Then leave home at 11 am to drive the mere 125 kilometres to my nearest branch of HSBC, who no longer have subsidiary branches in France â they flogged them off when they got wind off the banking crisis.
Arriving at the bank, 125 kilometres later, it was of course lunch time, so I duly repaired for the standard four course lunch which miraculously takes precisely two hours to prepare and serve and leaves you refreshed just as the banks reopen for business.
It was now 2pm.
My swooningly gorgeous bank manager was nowhere to be seen, so, being the sole customer, I addressed myself to one of the army of eight young men and women on the banking floor, and explained my mission.
He looked utterly horrified. I wanted what? Que, que, que? He conferred with his colleague. She eyed me suspciously. I handed over my cheque duly made out to âmoi memeââ¦â¦â¦the pair of them disappeared behind a glass screen. He came back and invited me to take a seat. I was going to have to âattendreâ.
Two more customers came into the bank â this being a big city centre branch â one collected a new cheque book, one several sheets of paper work. Half an hour went by. Eight employees, remember?
An alarm sounded. No 1 cashier left his seat and opened a heavy door in the wall. A young black girl emerged pushing a heavy trolley, followed by hatchet face with a clip board.
No 1 cashier gives up his seat in front of the computer to young black girl who proceeds to go through some sort of complicated loggin in procedure. A machine whirrs into life and produces a piece of paper which she hands to No 1 cashier who duly signs it. She stand back clutching her piece of paper. Hatchet face takes her place. She goes through loggin procedure, machine whirrs into life, produces another piece of paper, young black girl and No 2 cashier both sign it. Iâm now watching agog.
Duplicate keys are produced, and No 2 cashier and Hatchet face both unlock what appears to be a safe under the table. Young black girl unloads heavy trolley of several heavy metal boxes, each one slips precisely into place with a clasp. She breaks a nail on the last one. This requires several consultations with her colleagues and furious glances in my direction. Eventually all previous formulas are repeated, machine whirrs into life several times, produces several more sheets of paper, everyone present signs everything in sight as far as I can see. There is even a piece just for me, to confirm that yes, I do want them to give me cash, and it is to buy a tractor, and yes, I do have my passport. Sorry, scrub that, there are two pieces just for me, one for them and a copy for me. It is now 3.30pm. Remember I left home at 11am?
No 1 cashier returns to his seat, everyone has signed to say they have supervised everyone else, the cash has come up from the vault, it is in the safe under the table, just one small problem. I donât have my cash yet.
More numbers logged into computer, more passwords entered and re-entered. Eventually, finally, the safe disgorges an envelope containing my cash. It is checked and rechecked, signed for and re-signed for.
At 6pm I got back home. A total of 250 kilometres travelled, 7 hours of my life consumed, eight full time employees in a bank that had but 3 customers whilst I was there.
You must be wondering what manner of Ferrari tractor this was that Mr G had bought, what fantastic sum I was trying to withdraw from HSBC, the worldâs favourite bank, to cause so much trouble?
Sorry to disappoint, but it was a second hand Ford all 3,600 Euros worth of second hand Fordâ¦â¦â¦
You can see why they donât need all the bullet proof glass palaver that we have in the UK, even with the aid of a sawn off shot gun, any self respecting bank robber would loose the will to live and shoot himself half way through the transactionâ¦â¦.