27 March 2011

La Nostalgie: Le Distributeur et la Carte Bancaire

An ATM of the Société Générale
As the sign suggests, you can make withdrawals but not deposits.

While I was watching the documentary series on “50 Years That Changed the Way We Live” (or whatever it was called), this tidbit came as a surprise: the French launched automatic teller machines all the way back in 1968. The banks had planned to start up in May, but talk about bad timing — Paris became a war zone that month, in an uprising of students and workers. Wisely, the banks waited until July to unveil the new machines.

The original machines used punch cards (on paper), which the bank would return to you the next day. Later, cards with magnetic coding came along, and you could use them not only at the bank but also at certain stores. Since then, the French started using puces (fleas), microchips implanted in the card; you don’t sign a paper, but tap your ATM code into a machine. Since almost nobody anywhere ever checks signatures, using a code ostensibly reduces the incidence of fraud.

Hey, guys, I’ll be right with you — I just have to run to the bank.
May 1968

Puces have made bank cards irresistibly practical, and payment by carte bancaire is now more popular than cash — except at the doctor’s office, for example, because a credit card somehow strikes the French as less professional and more commercial than currency. (The pharmacist will happily accept your card.) At the market, my fishmonger takes bank cards, but my veg vendor does not, because his goods are typically cheaper; both merchants accept checks, a practice that is on the decline.

Bank cards are also referred to as Cartes Bleues (blue cards, abbreviated as “CB” in signs but not in conversation). Cartes Bleues are infinitely preferable to the cartons rouges or jaunes that signify penalties in soccer. Or anyway, that’s what people tell me the red and yellow cards mean. What do I know about sports?

Co-co-ri-co: A bank card from the Crédit Agricole, showing the cardholder’s support for the French soccer team.
The puce is the gold area on the left.

American credit-card companies have dithered over microchips for years. At one point, there were rumors that American Express would begin using them — back in 1995 or so. And we’re still waiting.

So this is why, mes chers amis américains, none of your credit cards will work in the ticket machine at the train station, no matter how hard you kick it or how loudly you cuss at it. This is also true in the parking lot, and almost anywhere else there’s no living human being and a ballpoint pen to process your transaction. You are warned. Everyone will see at once that you are an American, and they will whisper and point.

(Your American bank cards should work, however,
in a French ATM.)

Finally, I observe that, though it’s hard to believe, ATMs used to distribute francs, once upon a time. The conversion to the Euro, in 2002, is another phenomenon I witnessed firsthand, and I can’t explain how I made the transition so easily. Really, it’s not like me. Some French people are still traumatized, and you see them in shops and on the street, making mental calculations, trying to convert Euros back into francs. Groceries and many other stores still post prices in both currencies. Which goes to show that, even for people who speak the language, paying for stuff in France is an adventure.


Rob Menaul said...

"ATM machine"????

I can't wait until Linc has words with you...

William V. Madison said...

Shhhh, don't tell him! I'll make the correction!