The Finances, Futures and Fights of the Frankowicze
Since the 2000s, many Polish citizens, colloquially known as frankowicze (“franc people”), have taken out mortgages in the Swiss franc. These foreign-currency mortgages offered favourable interest rates but at the same time exposed debtors to the risk of exchange rate instability. The appreciation of the franc after the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its unpegging from the euro in 2015 have complicated the entire situation and caused massive increases in the mortgage debt of many frankowicze. Today, around 500,000 Polish citizens still hold franc mortgage loans, which have become “a public symbol of the failed hope of prosperity”. Consequently, some debtors have organised in the association Stowarzyszenia Stop Bankowemu Bezprawiu (Stop Banking Lawlessness), which has gained media attention following nationwide protests. In 2019, debtors experienced a legal breakthrough when the European Court of Justice ruled in their favour, allowing them to individually ask Polish courts to convert their franc mortgages into the national currency. Swiss franc and more broadly foreign-currency lending to households has been a typical feature of household credit booms in Eastern Europe, and this research aligns itself with the overall aim of the Peripheral Debt project to investigate distinct forms and experiences of household financialization in Eastern Europe. With a particular focus on how frankowicze debtors in the capital of Poland cope with and contest their debt, this project is guided by the following research questions:
- What role does money and debt repayment play in the everyday lives of frankowicze households, including how they budget, consume, and plan for the future?
- How do frankowicze debtors organize to contest their debt, and on what resources and social relations do they rely in this process?
- What relevance do litigation and law have for frankowicze debtors’ practices of contesting their debt, and how does the 2019 ruling of the European Court of Justice shape these practices?
The foci of these research questions differ from existing anthropological studies of debt and finance that have explored so-called “cultures of finance”, technical dimensions of finance, and elite actors such as bankers, financial analysts and derivative traders. With its focus on the power dynamics at play between indebted households and financial and legal institutions, as well as on the social relations of household debt, this project contributes instead to the burgeoning anthropological studies investigating the political ramifications and unequal relationships at play in financialization in “peripheral” contexts.
Through one year of ethnographic fieldwork in Warsaw, I will attempt to establish rapport with frankowicze debtors and conduct participant observation in various physical and online settings, including frankowicze households, law firms specializing in litigation related to Swiss franc mortgages, NGOs, activist meetings, and courtroom hearings. Semi-structured and life-story interviews will be utilized for different kinds of interlocutors depending on context and purpose. Document analysis will be carried out to develop a historical understanding of events, processes and context of Swiss franc mortgages. Furthermore, to achieve a systematic overview of demographics, debt levels, income and expenses, a survey will be utilized to collect quantitative data about the interviewed households.