The cash euro turns 20
The European Monetary System (EMS), set up in 1979, was one of the first concrete steps in the creation of the single currency. From that date onwards, European currencies could no longer vary against each other outside certain well-defined limits. The result was greater stability in currencies and inflation. This period saw the birth of the European Currency Unit, or ECU, a “basket of values” prefiguring the euro. The Maastricht Treaty, which entered into force on 1 November 1993, provided for the free movement of capital, the convergence of European economies and the creation of a single currency in 1997 or, at the latest, in 1999 with the freezing of exchange rates between national currencies. The name “ECU” was abandoned in favour of the “euro” in 1996.
Against this backdrop, Crédit Agricole set up the Eurocam entity in 1995 to prepare for the various changes to come. Eurocam was headed by Robert Boursault, Director of Banking Transactions and Services at Caisse Nationale. He was accompanied by Pascale Valent, Head of the Single Currency Mission. Eurocam was tasked with managing the changeover to the euro for the Crédit Agricole Group as a whole, representing Crédit Agricole and contributing to the work of local authorities, and promoting, informing and communicating on the project at Crédit Agricole. The Single Currency Mission set up 14 units, by business activity or entity, and a correspondent was appointed at each of the Regional Banks.
For Crédit Agricole, transitioning to the single currency involved a threefold logistical, relational and strategic challenge. The initial priority was to inform network and subsidiary agents, as well as customers. Training packages were made available from September 1996 and the “Single Currency Mission” website went online in February 1997.
1999: “wholesale banking” changeover
The first changeover concerned “wholesale banking”, i.e. financial markets and associated products. The initial phase consisted in taking note of the franc-euro exchange rate, unveiled by the European Commission on 31 December 1998 and standing at :
This figure was distributed to all Group entities and then to all points of sale.
Interview with Jean Laurent, Deputy Managing Director of Caisse Nationale de Crédit Agricole, 1 January 1999.
On 1 January 1999, four million customers – a quarter of Crédit Agricole’s total customer base – were affected by this shift in the financial and securities markets. The main challenge lay in coordinating the subsidiaries and entities, a process that required three years of work. Some 4,500 tasks were grouped into 527 macro-tasks carried out by the 15 control units of the entities concerned, all of them connected to Eurocam’s central PC.
This initial changeover to the financial euro went off without a hitch. On 2 January 1999, an initial transfer in euros was made from an American bank to a Regional Bank; on 3 January, the first account statements in euros were printed; and on 4 January at 6 a.m., changeover operations came to an end.
Over 1,000 employees worked on all the operations involved in this first key changeover. On 6 January 1999, the Eurocam PC was put to sleep.
1999-2002: preparing for the cash euro
The Group set up a “2002 objective” committee for the transition to the cash euro. The central priority was placed on customers in the various markets (farmers, professionals, individuals, etc.), leading to the creation of a broad range of informative media, including a “Practical guide to the euro”. Information meetings were also coordinated locally by branch staff at schools and with shopkeepers, while some Regional Banks set up special call centres to answer questions from the public.
France 3 news report on the Crédit Agricole de Mer securities centre in the Loir-et-Cher department.
Concrete operations kicked off in 2001 with the organisation of “changeover weekends”. In July, the first bank statements in francs and euros were printed and the first chequebooks distributed. Starting on September 15, the accounts and contracts of 16 million customers of the Regional Banks and subsidiaries switched to euros over the course of six changeover weekends. In October, the euro became the reference currency. As a result, all computer applications had to be reviewed and ATMs were required to accept checks in euros. Some 96,000 conversion calculators were distributed to Crédit Agricole’s professional customers. At the branches, workstations made the changeover and the euro became the sole currency. A major logistics operation began in December as the new currency began to be stored at branches and the first “euro kits” were handed out to customers.
Manual franc-euro converter key ring distributed by Crédit Agricole.
The euro became a tangible reality for the entire population on 1 January 2002. From that date on, ATMs distributed euros only and the Crédit Agricole network transformed into a “franc collector”. Special events were rolled out for the collection process, with the Cantal branches inviting music groups to play on site. The process led to a few incongruous situations, with customers turning up at branches with socks full of pennies and wicker baskets overflowing with banknotes.
The franc lost all legal value on 17 February and Robert Boursault issued the last message from Eurocam on 28 February: “Crédit Agricole’s changeover to the euro is now complete and the situation is stable. Having accomplished its tasks, Eurocam is closing its doors.”
These long-term operations proved highly structuring for Crédit Agricole, required to manage extensive IT, logistics and relational operations simultaneously across all the entities. The commitment of Cedicam (former name of Crédit Agricole Payment Services) was crucial. The changeover also illustrated the mobilising power of Crédit Agricole, a decentralised Group, to the benefit of all customers.