O’Reilly Media, best known for its books on high technology – the books often have distinctive pen and ink drawings of animals – has a book series called annoyances: Windows 7 Annoyances, Mac Annoyances, and so on: these books address common problems on these systems or software and provide solutions for them. Annoyances seems like a useful model for writing about France, at least the first part: identifying categories of problems here and writing about them. As for providing a solution, that remains less certain – patience and persistence might be the only remedies with regard to dealing with French banks.
That’s not how we do things
Our banking business in France began in our first month here, October, 2011, in Marseille. To pay rent on our apartment I would transfer the euro equivalent in dollars from my Vanguard account to our landlord’s Societe Generale bank account (this always fluctuated from month to month, given changes in the dollar to euro exchange rate). I was able to do this because I had gone through the process of linking my Vanguard account to the landlord’s Societe Generale account, a process that required me to fill out an application, then get this application stamped by a bank officer, and this could not be any old stamp and signature, but instead a medallion signature guarantee. The problem was I could only get a medallion signature guarantee where I had an account, and Vanguard has very few offices and none near where I was. My bank, USAA, has even fewer offices, but here I was in luck: while visiting friends in Annapolis, I went to the USAA office right near the Naval Academy, and got the application stamped as required – it was in bright green and looked very official. The first annoyance was a little tedious.
A few weeks after Annie arrived in Marseille with the kids (I was still in the Unites States working), she opened a bank account, at a Societe Generale branch on the rue La Canebière, just around the corner from our apartment. There were no particular difficulties with this until I arrived at the end of November. To add me to the account the bank had to close the existing account, then open a new one: this meant new checks, new bank cards, all the usual paperwork. A bit annoying, but the bank manager there was helpful, and we managed.
In September 2012 we moved from Marseille to La Garde, a small town near Toulon. After we got settled in we went to the local branch of Societe Generale, a mere two minute walk from our home, to tell them about our change of address. They duly noted that in the computer, thanked us, and that was that. A few weeks later we had to go into the bank for something, the exact nature of what I can’t remember. In any case we weren’t able to see anyone that day, but instead had to make an appointment for about two weeks later (in addition to being open limited hours, the bank is closed on Mondays. But to be fair, they are open Saturday mornings). Looking around the bank office while Annie spoke to the teller, who apparently also made appointments for the managers, I saw three managers sitting in their offices, looking at their computers, but no one else was with them. They were busy?
We returned two weeks later, waited until about ten minutes after our appointment time, then were shown into one bank manager’s offices, a woman I’ll refer to as simply unhelpful bank manager (UBM). When we told the UBM what we wanted, she typed for a minute on her computer, then told us we would need to go to Marseille to take care of our business. Marseille? Why did we need to go to Marseille? Because, she replied, that’s where our bank was. I thought for a moment she was joking. Wasn’t this a branch of the bank Societe Generale? Yes, it was. The same company as our bank in Marseille? Yes, indeed. Then why did we need to go to Marseille? Because that’s where our bank was. I thought I heard a clock striking thirteen. Finally Annie asked what difference did it make if we were in Marseille, La Garde, or Lille (a city in northern France) – it was all the same bank, yes? No – your bank account was tied to a locale, a particular place, as much as it was to a particular bank. Therefore certain procedures and transactions could not be done at any bank, no matter how close, but instead at your bank of record, no matter how far away.
Ah – strange in this age of computers, but no problem, we said: just recently we had been into the bank to update our new address, here in La Garde. UBM said yes, but we had only updated our mailling address so that the bank knew where to mail documents; we had not told them that we also wanted to change our bank locale from Marseille to La Garde. We responded that no one told us that we needed to do so, and we would assume that since we were 1) foreigners and 2) telling the bank that we had moved and wanted to register a new address, then ergo 3) bank personnel might think to inquire if we also wanted to change our bank locale. UBM just smiled.
Must…. control…. fists… …of….. death – this transcends annoying.
Once our blood pressure had dropped, we told UBM to also change our bank locale to La Garde (no shit Sherlock!!!!!). She said she would be happy to take care of that, and that the computer records would be updated within 90 days.
Bounced check dominos
I can only recall two times bouncing checks. The first happened when my soon to be ex wife cleaned out our joint checking account, without telling me and after I asked her not to do so since I was paying shared bills. The second time, more recently, was when I made arrangements to move some money from the United States to our account in France, but failed to notice that a holiday in the United States meant banks were closed, transfers delayed, and all that meant money did not appear when I expected it to. I think the holiday was Columbus Day, a holiday my elementary, middle, and high school did not observe, so was one I rarely noticed.
As soon as I learned that the check had bounced, I did a sneaker transfer: simply pulling money out of my American bank account at an ATM, then depositing that cash into my Societe Generale account. I then made arrangements with the merchant (I think it was a dance school for Catherine to whom I had given a post dated check – a very common practice here) and quickly paid the fee, and I thought all was fine: merchant taken care of, money in the Societe Generale account.
A day later I checked our account online, and noticed that some more checks had cleared, no problem there, but for each check there was a 10€ fee. I could see there being a fee for the one bounced check, but just that one check – why the additional fees? Annie and I went down to the bank, and were able to see UBM right away – I think there computers were down and there was nothing for the bank managers to do. As it happens, in France, or at least at Societe Generale, if a check bounces, even if that check is voided, ample money is put into the account, and so on, nonetheless a 10€ fee is charged against each subsequent check, until the original offending check is physically returned to the bank. You read that correctly.
I contacted the merchant: they told us they had saved the check for us anticipating that we would need the physical check to present to the bank. Very, very annoying.
Lost card, too bad
In July, 2014, I was getting ready to go back to the United States after a three year absence – the rest of the family was already in parts of North America. The day before my flight out of Nice, in a rush of things I misplaced my Societe Generale bank card – I though maybe I left it in the card reader at Intermarche, a sort of local Safeway, but no one at the store had seen my card.
Worried, but not overly concerned, I went to the local Societe Generale branch. No one was around but an unhelpful bank teller (UBT). I told her what happened, and asked her if she could cancel my card. She said she could not. I said fine, was there someone there who could? No.
Okay, did she then have any suggestions about who to call? She did not. I left the bank, and on the way out I noticed that next to the window decals that indicate the bank hours, there was a number to call, toll-free, in case you lost your card. Ultra-annoying.
I went home, looked up the number on the bank’s website, got a helpful English speaker agent (HESA), and he said that he could cancel the card, and no – there had been no unauthorized charges on the missing card. He asked if he should go ahead and send a replacement card, which would arrive in two days. When I told him I’d be away, he said he would instead send it to my local branch, and I could pick it up when I returned from the United States.
Leprechauns and Lucifer
Through his paternal grandfather, Kieran is eligible for Irish citizenship which includes an Irish passport. The benefits of this are obvious in that a number of doors are now open to him: once he has an Irish passport, he can work in Europe, and attending a university here is much easier and much cheaper.
Because Kieran lives with us, he must send all Irish citizenship application paperwork to the Irish embassy in Paris. In addition to several reams of paperwork, birth and death certificates, assorted ceral box tops, etc. Kieran must provide proof that he lives in France. The officials as the Irish Embassy/Paris (IEP) told us that his name on a phone account was not good enough, nor was a letter from us and our landlord, nor was his titre de sejour (issued by the French government, no less). However, a bank account in his name would be sufficient proof to establish his residency in France. A bank account. So it should be easy: just go down to our local branch and open up an account in Kieran’s name. Easy, yes?
Annie and Kieran went to the bank to open the account: to prove Kieran lives with us they brought along a letter from our landlord, first (re)establishing that we live where we say we live and where the bank sends all our statements; they also brought along his titre de sejour, which as noted, is issued by the government of France, which has his France address on it. In the past, such as at the bank or at the prefecture in Toulon, this amount of paperwork would have been sufficient to prove our and his residency.
Once again UBM told Annie that the letter from our landlord was not valid, and that she needed an official quittance de loyer (receipt of rental). Annie pointed out that the landlord letter was good enough for the prefecture, but UBM retorted it was not good enough for Societe Generale. As it happened, UBM stepped away for a moment (this was all done in the bank lobby), when helpful bank teller (HBT – given his propensity to be helpful he certainly will not go far at Societe Generale) said that he could easily find an acceptable form the internet and print out it out for us. But at that moment the UBM returned, overheard HBT’s offer to help, and said he would do nothing of the sort – really.
Later, friends told us that there is in fact no official form but most anything would do. In the end Annie went online, found three different official looking quittances, had Kieran take them to the bank, and two of three were approved. So soon Kieran will have proved that he lives in France so he can open a bank account, and after opening a bank account will be able to prove to the IEP that he lives in France. Quite annoying.
I don’t think we’re going to get off that easy.
Preview of coming annoyances
During the last visit to the banks, UBM mentioned to Annie there had been a flag on our file for several years – yes, years. Unknown to us our bank needed a copy of our tax return to ensure that we were paying taxes in the United States. We gave them a copy of last year’s taxes, and for moment all seems fine.
And, during this last series of visit, the bank mentioned that they were moving our account from that location, in La Garde, to the next town over, Le Pradet. Did this mean the bank branch in La Garde was closing? No. What did it mean then? Simply that our account was now in Le Pradet. It’s hard to understand what was going on here. Was an armoured vehicle transferring our pittance from one location to another? No idea.
Of course we’re not done. As long as we’re in France, we’ll always have Societe Generale.