Removing Squatters from your French Property
Tuesday 06 July 2021
The law has been toughened to enable homeowners in France to obtain speedy eviction of squatters from their property, but only provided the préfet agrees.
Although the squatting of property is not widespread in France, several high-profile cases in recent years have triggered a change in the law.
Perhaps the most important of these cases occurred last year, when two septuagenarians who purchased a property in the village of Théoule-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, found the property squatted before they moved in, leaving them homeless.
The case highlighted the delays inherent in securing the eviction of squatters, as it normally required a court order, which might take several years to obtain.
Even where a court order was obtained the préfet could refuse to enforce the order if there were extenuating circumstances, eg children.
An accelerated process was also available, but it was also hugely limited in its capabilities, as it could only be invoked if the owner reported the squat within 48 hours of the illegal occupation. As squatters rarely send an e-mail to announce their arrival, and frequently adopt tactics to offer contrary evidence that they have been in the property for more than 48 hours, it could rarely be used. The police were also frequently slow or reluctant to ask due to the lack of clarity in the law.
French property laws, and often official sentiment, have traditionally leant heavily towards protecting the rights of the individual against the presumed wealth of property owners and institutions.
Inevitably, that presumption was exploited by squatters, who could ‘play the system’ to delay eviction for lengthy periods.
Changes to Squatters Eviction Procedure
The main changes in the law, effective from 1st January 2021, are:
- The family and personal circumstances of squatters are no longer material factors in court proceedings. Previously, the law allowed squatters to justify their occupation of a property on their need for shelter. Even where such claims may have been fraudulent, investigating them took considerable time and could hugely delay eviction;
- There is now explicitly no requirement for owners to report the occupation of their property to the authorities within 48 hours of it occurring;
- Eviction can no longer be refused by the court on the grounds that it is the winter truce period - la trêve hivernale;
- Second homes, including flats and caravans, are now clearly defined as having the same squatting protection under law as the primary residence. Previously, the legal position of a squat in a second home was, at best, highly ambiguous.
Eviction Procedure in France
Under the new law, the processes are much the same as previously, although (theoretically) with less discretion to the courts and the local prefet.
There are two options open to property owners:
i. Accelerated Procedure (procédure accéléré d’évacuation forcée).
This is not a court procedure, but one administered by local authorities.
Typically, once you notice or you are informed your property has been occupied you need to report the fact as a complaint to the local police or gendarmerie, who will complete a 'constat'. This is a report confirming that they have assessed the complaint and found it to be justified. Contrary to some press reports we have seen, the law does NOT require them to do so within a specific time period, but it cannot be earlier than 24 hours;
The report is delivered to the préfet – usually again within 24 hours, who is now obliged to give a decision within 48 hours.
If they decide in your favour, they will issue an eviction notice (mise en démure de quitter les lieux).
If the préfet declines to do so, they must issue a written justification stating either that you have not respected due process or that there is a wider public interest issue (non-respect de la procédure / motif impérieux d’intérêt général);
Assuming eviction is granted, the notice will be pinned in the notice board at the local mairie and on the property. This is undertaken by the police, local mairie, or possibly an huissier de justice. It cannot be done by the owner.
While this procedure is a significant improvement the decision of the préfet to evict it is not constrained to any maximum length of time.
Thus, while the rule changes mean the circumstances of the squatters is no longer taken into consideration by the courts, this does not apply to the préfet under the accelerated procedure.
The préfet may still apply social justice considerations to refuse an eviction notice under “general interest” provisions, which you would need to appeal against that through a court.
As under existing law, if the préfet refuse to implement the accelerated procedure and eviction, you can seek damages from the préfet by way of compensation for loss or rent. However, there are often significant delays in obtaining redress, and the amounts involved will fall short of the losses you will have incurred.
ii. Court Proceedings (procédure d’expulsion juridique)
If you are obliged or choose to use the court process, you will need to engage an avocat.
Some delays will continue to be experienced in gaining access but with more cases now being dealt with by the accelerated procedure outside of courts, it should improve waiting times.
Assuming the court agrees, it will issue a “signification”, which is essentially the legal ruling that the squatters must quit. The squatters will be allowed one month to vacate.
If they do not do so, the huissier will issue a “commandement de quitter les lieux” meaning that the squatters must leave immediately – no further delays will be permitted. If they refuse, the huissier will contact the préfecture to ask for the assistance of the police or gendarmes to physically expel the squatters.
Does the New Law Work?
It is difficult to gauge the effects of the new legislation to date, as although most préfets appear to now be more rapidly issuing eviction notices there continue to remain delays in many cases.
According to recent government figures, there have been 124 squatted properties notified to the authorities, of which some 75% were recovered within 72 hours using the new law.
Of the 124 cases, 52 concerned the Ile-de-France region, 17 in the Hauts-de-France (17), 16 in PACA and 13 in Occitanie. These 4 regions account for 79% of the cases
Those cases not resolved have been due to owners not having lodged a complaint, proof of ownership of the property has not been provided or the search for housing or accommodation for those who may be 'vulnerable' is dragging on.
The issue of proof of ownership has been one that has always been a factor in getting any enforcement action, and the new law does not seem to have overcome the problem.
Likewise, some préfets remain reluctant to evict those whom they consider vulnerable without first securing alternative accommodation for them, despite the fact that the law does not require that alternative accommodation is provided.
So, in the end, whether the préfet acts is going to be down to one of personal temperament and circumstances, including the political colour of the municipality.
Perhaps therefore, one of the most significant changes in the law is that préfets are now required to give a reason for their decision within 48 hours, which does seem to be enough to dissuade many of them from siding with illegal occupants
As an alternative to legal action, or in tandem with it, if you consider you are up to it, a quicker solution may be to consider negotiating with the squatters for them to leave. The offer of a temporary alternative accommodation or a sum of cash if often sufficient to dislodge them.