French authorities fine 11 banks after price-fixing probe

ELEVEN banks, including UK giant HSBC, were yesterday fined €384.9m (£323m) for colluding to fix the price they charge for handling cheques.

The French competition authority found that the banks acted in concert to set interbank cheque fees on 80 per cent of cheques circulating in France between January 2002 and July 2007, during the transition to a new digital system for processing cheques.

The banks, which include Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas along with British based HSBC, will be able to appeal against their fines in court but must pay them regardless, a spokeswoman for the competition authority said.

The biggest individual fines were for Credit Agricole and subsidiary LCL at €100m and Natixis parent BPCE at €91m. HSBC received a fine of €9m.

The fines were set according to each bank’s market share of cheques in France, its weight in the economy and past practices.

A spokeswoman for BNP Paribas, which was fined €63.3m, said the bank was “surprised” at the decision because the cheque fees had been conceived as “transitional” measures with full transparency and in full view of the authorities.

The competition authority is also investigating interbank card charges and will deliver a verdict in 2011.

A pan-European study published by the European commission in September 2009 put France among the worst offenders for high bank account charges. It cited high debit card charges among the contributing factors.