Seven major banks in France have rallied around Visa and its Open Platform smart card strategy.

Visa International announced last week that a group including the Big Three commercial banks-Banque Nationale de Paris, Credit Lyonnais, and Societe Generale-endorsed the technology and pledged to participate when card-issuing begins next year.

Credit Commercial de France, the post-office bank La Poste, the savings bank group Caisses d'Epargne, and the Banques Populaires network are also joining in the initial stages, and Carte Bleue, the French Visa club, expects others to follow.

It is essentially a "party-line" vote. These are loyal Visa issuers that would have been expected to back Visa Open Platform, which is based on Java programming specifications and vying for bankers' allegiance with the differently designed Mondex system of MasterCard International.

But Visa still had to win over a constituency that is further down the smart card road than any other banking system in the world. The French began committing to putting chips in all bank cards in the 1980s, completed the process four years ago, and are now looking at technology upgrades.

MasterCard and its Mondex International unit struck first a month ago when Credit Mutuel, the country's top MasterCard member, took a 51% stake in Mondex France and said it hoped others would join, including Visa banks.

"France has always been in the vanguard of chip development, so it is no surprise that these French banks, together with Carte Bleue, will be among the first in the world to introduce the most advanced multifunction smart cards," said Jon Prideaux, executive vice president of new products for Visa EU, the London-based company serving the European Union region.

Beginning with a pilot, each bank will be able to "test the core payment functions of credit and debit using the international EMV (Europay- MasterCard-Visa terminal interface) standard with the Visa Open Platform," said Jean-Marc Bornet, chief executive officer of Carte Bleue.

"It also enables them to add their own additional applications to make the cards multifunctional," Mr. Bornet said. "This means each bank can offer customized and personalized services, such as a loyalty program, access control facility, or home banking, resulting in real added value to the payment card."

Mr. Prideaux added, "The French banks will compete on the different types of services offered on their smart cards, so it is important that they have a platform that offers the best combination of services at the lowest cost and provides maximum choice while protecting investments."

That investment-protecting motivation also underlies the Common Electronic Purse Specifications, a multinational standard pushed by Visa that has won support from numerous stored-value card programs-and from MasterCard's Europay International affiliate.

The French announcement, during the Cartes '98 meeting in Paris last week, came four months after Standard Chartered Bank began the first Visa Open Platform pilot in Singapore. Standard Chartered is the London-based bank formerly headed by Malcolm Williamson, who became Visa International CEO on Oct. 1.

Visa said 28 banks worldwide have committed to Open Platform. Supporters include Citibank, Visa's French and Spanish group members, and Brussels- based Proton World International, which Visa and American Express Co. partially own.

Up to 10 pilots, including three in the United States, are to be under way by next year, said Visa Open Platform senior vice president Philip Yen.

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