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Fees, fraud, debt: How bank clients can get help in France

Plenty of issues can arise in a client-bank relationship. We speak to Michel Guillaud, president of France Conso Banque, about defending customer rights

Michel Guillard, president of France Conso Banque Pic: Photo supplied by interviewee

What does your association do?

We deal with any dispute relating to a bank, whether for individuals or groups. Until a couple of years ago, there was another association called the AFUB, which had an important role, but its founder died and it ceased operating. So, we’re practically the only ones in the area now. The big general consumer groups often direct people with banking issues towards us, because we have the technical and legal expertise. 

We were founded by lawyers and bankers and, as a retired banker myself, I can understand banking problems from the inside.

We deal about 80% of the time with members of the public, and the rest of the time with – mostly small – businesses and professionals. The latter are often poorly treated by banks and by consumer law. 

For example, the official taux d’usure [maximum loan rate, set quarterly per type of loan], applies only to individuals. In some cases, you see business people paying rates of 30%, like something from the 19th century.

What are some other typical problems you help with?

Commissions and fees, fraud, issues with how loans are handled, indebtedness, and for business people, liability for professional debts.

Fraud on transfers and cheques are major issues, whereas before it was bank cards. Fraudsters get into computer systems of banks or individuals and generate transfers to accomplices.

As for cheques, banks have a bad habit of sending chequebooks in the ordinary [unregistered] mail, so it’s easy to steal them from a letterbox.

Then, as banks don’t bother to check signatures, the thief or an accomplice can cash a cheque.

We defend the consumer by highlighting the bank’s negligence.

You have helplines on your site: can anyone call them or are they for members?

We can give brief advice to non-members, but, as an association, our main services are reserved for members. If someone wants us to look in-depth at their case and benefit from our legal service, you need to join [from €45/year depending on category]. In most cases, we can help with advice but a major part of our role is mediating with banks, and, if necessary, we can take legal action. 

If a lawyer is not essential, we do that ourselves, but we also have access to an approved network of banking lawyers. They have agreed to take account of our members’ means with regard to fees, and also to help at least one person a year in serious difficulties free of charge. We deal with all types of disputes, from a couple of thousand euros to half a million. [Editor’s note: France Conso Banque confirms it has advisers and lawyers who speak English].

Do you help with choosing a bank?

We can’t advertise for a certain bank, but, say, if we see someone is paying too many fees, we might suggest they look at an online bank. 

On the whole, we advise foreign people to go for a traditional bank because it may be important to them to have their own adviser, but it’s not the case for everyone. 

It depends on their needs. Will they need to take out loans, do they want advice on investments, etc? 

As for investments, some people come to us unhappy with the return they’re getting and want to contest the results or get advice on better strategies. We have specialists on this and have no products to sell, so can be objective.

Have you noticed problems for foreign members linked to Brexit?

Not specifically. Problems foreign people – I’m thinking especially of non-residents – report to us include difficulties with loans. 

We can help them find a French or foreign loan if they are struggling. 

Can you help non-residents who need a bank in France, or those looking to move?

Yes, we can, and do, but we’re also looking at setting up a dedicated group of advisers to help non-residents and future residents. For new residents, we don’t recommend just joining the nearest bank. We can steer them towards the bank that’s best adapted to their situation and needs.

You have been helping ING clients?

Yes, we’ve launched a group action on their behalf. This Dutch bank, with a subsidiary in France, decided to close its activities here and sell its portfolio of accounts – but first it decided to close thousands down. We’re not OK with that. 

They’re trying to ‘spruce up’ what they are selling by binning accounts they think aren’t profitable. 

They started with ordinary savings accounts and think they will move on to Livrets A, then, probably, little current accounts that are not regularly used.

Unfortunately, a bank can legally close an account without a reason, but if that causes harm to the customer, they should compensate that.

Now the situation looks even worse with N26. It is closing accounts with no warning and without paying out the money. We’re analysing this. 

The legal situation is complex because it’s a foreign online bank that applies German law. People who join such banks imagine they are protected by French law, but it seems it’s not necessarily the case. 

What other issues are coming up this year in banking? 

Rules on borrower’s insurance might be going to change. Crédit Mutuel has stopped requiring a health questionnaire for some clients. 

That’s a good thing, especially if more banks follow suit. Around half a million people a year are turned down for health reasons but we would like to see more solidarity. They can’t only take on the ‘good customers’. 

What do you think about BNP Paribas trialling a scheme where people pay extra to have an adviser?

We are against it. It’s almost a scam, because it’s not right to pay an adviser whose aim is to just sell you the products of that bank. It’s as if a car showroom was to bill you for the car and the salesman’s advice. 

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