Up until the 1960's French people used to dislike checks. And before that, in the XIXth century, they even disliked banknotes. There are historical reasons for this. After the death of Louis XIV, in 1715 (this is not so long ago: my great grand father, who died just before I was born, was born closer to Louis XIV than to today), the state was broke, due to all the wars Louis had waged. The Regent was offered by a shrewed Scottish financier, named John Law, to set up a bank in France. The bank issued notes against money, and provided the Regent with plenty of money. But, as often happened in those early times of banking, it issued too much notes, and in 1720 the bank went into a catastrophic bankruptcy.
A similar experience happened to us during the French Revolution : the revolutionary authorities needed money, in particular to fight the allied foreign countries who wanted to help our king to get back its full power (because our revolution theatened them as well). The government issued "Assignats", "guaranteed" by Church properties that the Revolution had confiscated in 1790. We also cut our king's head. But again the government issued too much notes, and within a few years the Assignats lost just about all their value. So French people have long been weary of paper money, and preferred gold.
In France one could change one's banknotes into gold until 1936, and in the US that was true until 1971. As you can see, that is not so long ago that "money was backed by value". Whether this is useful or not is the subject of the so-called Bullionist controversy that agitated England in the early XIXth century, and that is still quite an interesting and not satisfactorily resolved question. There is still plenty of room for other Nobel prizes in Economics, particularly in the field of money.
Do not think the situation has much changed. In the last 25 years the French government debt went from 90 billion euros (computed by dividing the actual figure then, expressed in French Francs, by 6,55957) to 1000 billion euros. Inflation, over the same period of time, was about 2.3 , that means that 90 billion euros of 1980 are "equivalent to" 207 billion euros of 2004. Therefore the French government debt was multiplied 5 fold. The pieces of paper bearing promises to pay back the money it borrowed from lenders, by the French government, are called Treasury bonds (TB). They are not banknotes like those issued by John Law, but they are likely to become as worthless because there are too many.
The US government debt, as of October 2004, is $7400 billion. I.e. the US government issued for $7400 billion of pieces of paper promising to pay them back (Treasury bonds and equivalent) to people who lent it that value in real dollars (obtained from trade and other activities) These "people" are economic agents of all sorts all over the world, in the US and elsewhere.
Japan holds more than $500 billions of these pieces of paper, and China more than $300 billions. Here are some figures from two years ago, with a more restrictive definition of T-bonds than ours : US_treasury_bonds.