In the Middle Ages and at the beginning of modern times, banking activities in France experienced a belated and more difficult development than in neighbouring countries such as Italy, the Netherlands or the United Provinces.
The process that led to the creation of the haute banque ended during the first half of the nineteenth century. This term refers to approximately 20 respected banking houses in the capital which belonged to very rich banking families
Although the traditional structures of credit were more or less sufficient for the usual demands of the state and the needs of trade, in times of economic crisis money became scarce and expensive. So in 1848, when a severe economic crisis was aggravated by the effects of a political revolution, some bankers went bankrupt and others stopped granting credit.
French banks were next faced with a long period of difficulties, beginning with the disruptions due to the First World War. As soon as the war broke out, the deposit banks were assailed by demands for withdrawals. The government decreed a moratorium in order to allow them to pay back deposits only gradually, and their public image was seriously impaired.
In 1945 the government of General de Gaulle nationalized the Banque de France and the four leading commercial banks that had national networks: the Crédit Lyonnais, the Société Générale, the Comptoir National d'Escompte de Paris and the B.N.C.I. The same law retained the main elements of the Vichy regulations and established an impenetrable barrier between the deposit banks, which had to give greater importance to the use of liquid assets, and the investment banks, which had avoided nationalization and were able to make long-term investments.
Twenty years ago, the French banking industry was still extremely regulated and divided; the French State was still very much in control. However, for a variety of reasons it has undergone substantial changes ever since, particularly in the course of the last few years.