Breaking into Paradise: Home Invaders & Squatters
Imagine the horror: returning to your villa in France after going out for dinner, only to find unwelcome occupants watching TV and making themselves dinner in your kitchen. Or while you’re relaxing in your apartment or villa, a window is pried open, allowing a man to enter and become a rent-free roommate. Or you simply open your front door and the person enters without your permission then refuses to leave. You’d think you can just call the police and they will handle it for you, right? Nope. Not in France.
Home Invasions: Police Response and its Limits
While the French police are supposed to protect public safety, their response to home intrusions is rarely forceful removal. Their actions are guided by two key principles:
- Proportionality of force: Same as you, the police can only use (or even threaten) force proportionate to what the criminals are using.
- Presumption of innocence: Even intruders have rights, and the police must avoid pre-judging their legal status in the property.
This means that unless the intruder poses an immediate danger (like, they’re holding a gun to your head in front of the police), the police normally won’t remove or detain the criminals — instead, they’ll advise filing a complaint and pursuing the lengthy legal eviction process.
To those used to the laws in other countries, this is obviously shocking and super frustrating, but understanding these limitations is crucial for managing expectations and staying out of legal trouble.
Squatters: Unwelcome Guests with Unexpected Rights
Squatter’s rights are a big problem for homeowners on the French Riviera (which is one of only four areas in France that account for 79% of all squats).
The French legal system, unlike many others, grants certain “precarious occupancy” rights to intruders and squatters. This means that even after an intrusion, simply leaving your home could give the intruders leverage, making eviction a complex and potentially lengthy legal battle.
From French gypsies who live the “squatter’s lifestyle” (with the help of many websites, online instructions, and other squatters) to foreigners seeking asylum to criminal networks (mostly from Romania and Bulgaria), there are many people out there who know the laws and abuse the French system, which seems designed to protect criminals.
Squatters can break into your home while you’re out getting groceries, and (unlike in the USA, where you can get out your gun and forcibly remove them, or shoot them) you suddenly become at the mercy of the local préfet and the squatters.
If you enter your own property to attempt to convince them to leave, you can go to jail for 3 years and get a €30,000 fine! Even if the squatter’s leave on their own, entering the property before you have a formal eviction order and without legal authorization could be considered trespassing or forced entry, leading to legal repercussions for the villa owner.The law also says that even if you're physically home when they break in, then you need to go through the proper channels to get rid of them -- even if you have pets that are at risk! The police normally won't remove them.
Same as you, the police can only use (or even threaten) force proportionate to what the criminals are using. Also, you can’t use ‘excessive force’ — even in self-defense. So, if the intruders aren’t actively threatening you with a baseball bat, you can’t threaten them with yours without committing a crime.
Because of online squatter communities, many squatters invite multiple other families to live in your home with them so that someone is always there, to intimidate the homeowners, and to make eviction more complicated and time-consuming.
Most homeowners end up with tens of thousands of euros in property damage, sometimes hundreds of thousands of euros in utility bills, expensive legal fees, and their valuables stolen. Meanwhile, the squatters not only aren’t punished, but the authorities are obligated to help the squatters by re-homing them locally (for free) and helping get their kids enrolled in a local school!
Even more insane is the fact that new laws state that squatters can sue the homeowner if they get injured in the house or if the homeowner doesn’t keep the house in ‘good condition’, despite the homeowner not being allowed into the house. Yes, your read that right.
The laws have recently been modified, so you could possibly get the squatters out within 3 days (but they will almost certainly steal and vandalize in the meantime) — if you’re lucky. But if you rented it to them, even for one night, then it can take years to get them out, they’re then considered tenants who are overstaying, but not ‘squatters’.
Unfortunately, there’s a nasty loophole in the law where if your local préfet sides with the squatters (and many do!), or the squatters hand over a fake lease, you will then be required to hire an expensive lawyer and go to court, in which case it can take many months or, more commonly, years to get an eviction notice. After all that, you’re then at the mercy of the local police (who sometimes are willing to help, and sometimes can’t be bothered) to get them out.
This process can turn owning a property into a nightmare, and invalidate your insurance coverage. Many préfets decline to evict because it means more work for them, as the prefect has to be sure alternative accommodation is available, and check the veracity of any claims made by the squatters, before evicting them. There are many, many stories of homeowners being forced to live in a motorhome or hostel because the local authorities are too lazy to take action.
Because of this, many squatters demand cash and luxury hotel stays to get them to leave earlier — and some home owners comply, with varying results (there’s no guarantee that the squatters will leave after you’ve given them money — they may just keep demanding more).
Not surprisingly, this broken system incentivizes squatting and criminal behavior. A professional squatter who had extorted more than €10,000 per squat (not including items he stole) from more than 50 homeowners in the last year alone told the BBC: “It’s so much easier than robbing a bank. He told us he was a former cocaine dealer and bank robber. But now his main illegal activity is extortion [via squatting].“
And even if you pay someone off and they leave:
- You’re not legally allowed to move back into your own home yet. The legal eviction process must conclude before you can legally reclaim your property. This involves court hearings, paperwork, and potentially waiting for a final eviction order from the judge.
- The person you paid off to leave might sell this information to other potential squatters who also want a payoff. There are websites that facilitate this type of thing.
- They might come back multiple times to get more money.
Meanwhile, if squatters leave trash on your property (as they often do), which includes burnt-out caravans, cars, and other large trash, then legally, you must wait two months before the abandoned objects can be removed — at your cost. Insane, right?!
Tip: Make copies of your acte de vente définitif (by scanning it or taking good-quality photos) and store it digitally and in hard copy separate from the house. You’ll need this document to make a claim against the squatters.
In 2022, the government has ruled that you can now employ a legal clerk, known as a huissier de justice, to help you with the procedure, which can be complicated if you don’t speak French. Fees for this service vary. You can find your closest clerk here.
Here’s a FAQ about squatters that is helpful.