Jeanne Koré Salvato

s the world watches the financial sanctions among other penalties imposed upon Russia and Mr. Putin, the world may be tempted to think that banking problems would be the least of Mr. Putin’s worries.  Au contraire!  Were he to read this blog post in which a world citizen in good standing was brought to her knees by the French banking system, he would surely be alarmed.

Now this is not the history of modern banking, which probably began with the Dutch East India Company, who not only had its own military but also issued its own currency.  This is not that.

This background follows an ordinary person trying to open a bank account in France.  From the western suburbs one summer I whistled along the train ride to St Lazare, a sizeable check in my pocket.  I was going to open a euro bank account in Paris in my own name. 

Once I was seated in his office, the officious looking man asked me for a copy of my work contract. (Do you think office and officious are related words?) 

I explained I was a part-time person at a summer camp. (Part-time as in full-time but only for a month.) So I didn’t have a contract.  The officious man in his office apologized perfunctorily as he refused to open an account.  “I have a check for a thousand dollars, Monsieur.” He did not care, Madame.

Survivable tragedy, you might be thinking.  Well, yes, but that’s when I was in the country.  A tax-paying expat with a precious ten-year residency card.  Wait until I moved stateside, and, like Mr. Putin, live out of the country where my holdings are located.

I crept back to my suburb to the bank where I had a joint account with my husband at the time. They were only too happy to give me my own account.  But only, and I repeat only, because of the ole’ husband’s name on the joint account.

Women Must Vote

Did you know that France gave women the right to vote in 1948.  1948!!  In the States it was 1920. 

One fine day, stateside, I decided to check my French accounts online.  Normal thing to do. Many of us have had the experience of fraud, including me, who once got a charge for lots of computer equipment I didn’t buy. Quickly rectified. Change a phone number?  “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  This does not require a detective.  Ah, but if you are out of the country it requires all the resources you can muster. This is what I mean by Mr. Putin, beware.

There I was, click, click, bank, password, accounts.  A message slides across the screen, “Alerte de security.” If we had a euro (or $1.11) for every security alert, we’d be rich, right?  Don’t give your passwords, don’t give account numbers over the phone, whatever.  The bank just had the bright idea to send a message to everybody’s phone to confirm who is who.  Fine idea, except they still had my French phone number, a number I had not had for one year and a half. Change a phone number?  How hard can it be? 

Every banking client in France has a counsellor.  For years, I’d had an angel from heaven who explained the French banking system to me. (A story for another day.)

Do you see where this is going?  The angel counsellor had been promoted to real banking business.  And I had a new one.  (No!) I had written her to change my phone number.  Evidently nothing happened.  I called her again.  On vacation. I called La Bred Direct, the bank’s Direct Line. That person told me to call my counsellor at my particular agency, in Suresnes.  “You at the bank can’t just change my number?”  Of course not.  Only a person at the bank where I had physically established my account could do that.  When I explained the counsellor was not there, the bank representative gave me the number of another counsellor at my agency.  That person’s assistant answered the phone.  And he said to me that he couldn’t change the phone number because he didn’t know me.  He has to know me? This is a typical French thing.  I asked a friend once to call somebody for me.  “Oh,” she said.  “I don’t know them.”  That’s all she said, which is code for, “No.”

Get Me the Commissioner

I called the Direct Line again.  Why don’t you e-mail the agency?  Good idea!  Within minutes of making my request I received the following information:  you need a hand-written letter, signed by you, asking to change the phone.  (A hand written letter?) And a copy of the phone bill with your name on it.  I called the bank.  No name on phone bill.  This problem was solved by what is called an attestation.  My family certified that my phone was on their account.  (Of course, I wrote it for them.)

I scanned these documents and sent them off to the bank!  Nothing.  I re-sent the documents.  Nothing.  The agency and the counsellor are supposed to get back to you within 48 hours.  Nothing.

I tried again to access my accounts.  Still the same message on the screen, ready to contact the old French phone number.  I called my counsellor, not home. I called the bank’s Direct Line.The bank representative had the new American phone number.  Progress!  He would take care of everything.  I heard the angels sing, I saw the sky turn blue.

The following day I tried to access my accounts.  Still the same message, still the French phone number.  I called the bank’s Direct Line.  The representative asked, “Is your number 06 87 90 76 18?” No!  Not the old French phone number, haunting me, forever mine.

This time I said, “Could you please check my accounts to see if anything strange has happened?”  We had to go through the usual security questions, such as your private Cabaret name (what you last ate followed by your grandmother’s first name.) I was then asked the amount of a recent purchase. Happily this was the Christmas season, and I remembered a gift I’d bought. I had to remember because I couldn’t check my bank account! The representative wanted to know when I made the purchase.  When I answered, “Yesterday, she said, “Oh no.  It has to be purchased from 48 hours ago.”  Seriously?  How easy it would have been to just open up my account and scroll through.  But it was not possible.

Wait! I found a Sephora online purchase confirmation.  Hooray!  Problem solved!  No. “What is the amount in euros, Madame?” Well, it was not in euros, it had been processed in dollars.  “I can only process an amount in euros, Madame.”  Couldn’t she make a conversion?  She was representing a bank after all. No.

The classic French angulade ensued, an argument where both people talk at the same time and each one tells the other how unreasonable they are. Sometimes in quite rough language.  My cursing skills are somewhat limited in French, so not an option.  She said she was going to end the call, so I hung up.

Back to the Direct Line.  Surely somebody over there is reasonable.   I called.  I got transferred.  And who did I wind up with?  That same unfortunate, stubborn, unhelpful, rude, unfeeling woman from before.  What are the chances?  She assured me that she had been very agreeable. I had been rude.  She was simply stating the bank policy.  Did I understand that policy?  But I could not check my accounts—didn’t she see that as a serious problem? She did.  But it was not one she was going to solve.  I came up with the idea to use my card to buy something in France so they would have an amount in euros.  “That’s what I said, Madame,” she told me.  Are you asking yourself if you missed something here? She never proposed a thing. She stole my idea.  It was I who solved the problem and deserved her salary for that half hour. “I hope the bank listens to this recorded phone conversation and sends you to a course in customer relations,” I said.

Next I bought a Maigret mystery on for 6 euros and 11 euros in shipping.  Good lord.  The magic number in euros for book and shipping was 18.19 euros.  After 48 hours, I called the bank to tell them this. Could they please 1) change my phone number, 2) check my accounts, and 3) change my counsellor (if not my bank). M. Robert came to my aid, and thanks to him, just a voice on the phone, something like Alexa, polite and helpful, a man who never laid eyes on me, didn’t work at my agency and just happened to be competent. Long life to you and your descendants, Mr. Robert.

An entire demonstration of Godot:  waiting for the bank to change your phone number.  I wanted to call to your attention that this waiting has some activity involved.  Sometimes quite a bit of (futile) activity, but ultimately things do not move. (Until they did.  Until we do.)  Don’t say you haven’t been warned, Mr. Putin. When you are not in France, you are in for a very rough banking ride to get your money.

A little practice in arguing à la français!

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