France's competition watchdog has fined 11 banks a total of EUR344.9 million for colluding to charge customers "unjustified" interbank fees during the switch-over to a new digital cheque processing system.
The Autorité de la concurrence says that in 2002 when a digital system for processing and clearing interbank cheques was set up, the guilty parties colluded to raise several fees.
These included a 4.3 cent levy on 80% of cheques exchanged in the country until July 2007. According to the banks, the fee's aim was to offset losses in interest payments caused by the acceleration of interbank clearing thanks to digitalisation.
In a statement, the watchdog says: "The Autorité considers that there is no evidence to prove that the transition to ECI (exchanges check-image) has provoked net losses to any of the banks involved. Therefore, the justification presented by the banks of the necessity of a compensation mechanism, could not, in any event, justify the fee".
The banks were fined a total of EUR381.1 million for imposing the fee and a further EUR3.8 million for two additional fees for 'related services'. However, six other related fees charged were deemed justified.
The guilty banks are Banque de France, BPCE1 , Banque postale, BNP-Paribas, Confédération Nationale du Crédit Mutuel, Crédit Agricole, Crédit du Nord, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, LCL, HSBC and Société Générale.