Cheques: slow but steady adoption in France

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Copy of a cheque from the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris payable at Arles (France), 1920’s - BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Copy of a cheque from the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris payable at Arles (France), 1920’s - BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Cheques were introduced in France in 1865, but were very little used at first, becoming much more popular after the Second World War.

How did cheques originate?

In the 12th century, the Genoese merchants who frequented the great trade fairs in France’s Champagne region developed a type of credit instrument known as a lettre de foire – literally a ‘trade fair letter’. This promissory note – basically an IOU – signed by the issuer and duly certified by a notary, was used as a bill of exchange. This practical alternative to carrying cash money around made commercial deals easier and more secure. From 1742 onwards, England perfected the mechanism and established the use of the cheque we know today.

The French hesitant at first

The Banque de France, France’s central bank, issued its first cheques under the name ‘blank mandates’ in 1826 but the real introduction of the cheque in France in its current form dates from 14 June 1865. However, before the First World War, very few French people used cheques.

In 1918, just before the end of the War, the government created post office chequing accounts, with a view to encouraging the sending of money orders through the post office network as a way of avoiding cash payments. Etienne Clémentel, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, led by example and became the first holder of a post office current account.

CNEP sales prospectus outlining the advantages of using cheques, 1916 - BNP¨Paribas Historical Collections
CNEP sales prospectus outlining the advantages of using cheques, 1916 – BNP¨Paribas Historical Collections

Cheques a favourite payment method in France…for now

In 1966, only 17% of all French adults held a chequing account but by 1972 this figure had risen to 62%.

This surge in adoption was due to a) the growing practice of paying employee salaries by cheque and b) the easing of national restrictions on banks opening local branches from 1967 onwards.

Nowadays the French are among the biggest users of cheques in the world: over 3 billion were written in 2010, accounting for close to 20% of all payments. According to the Banque de France, the average number of cheques written per inhabitant in 2012 was 43.

Since the 1980s however, the use of cheques has been steadily declining in favour of other means of payment such as bank cards and direct bank transfers. With the more recent surge in mobile payments and contactless payments, the cheque now looks set to disappear in the next few years.

BNP advertising campaign for chequing accounts, 1967 - BNP Paribas Historical Collections
BNP advertising campaign for chequing accounts, 1967 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
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