The case of a retired French couple who sold their house to settle into a Riviera villa only to find that it was occupied by a family, leaving them “homeless”, has triggered public outrage and calls to change the country’s squatting laws.
Henri and Marie-Thérèse Kaloustian, both 75, were looking forward to a peaceful retirement by the sea after selling their home in Lyon, southeastern France.
Their intention was to decamp to the holiday home, a pink villa they have owned for the past 36 years in the picturesque village of Théooule-sur-Mer.
But when they arrived late August, they were shocked to discover that an unknown couple with two small children had “moved in” and refused to budge.
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After receiving threats from the father, they contacted the local gendarmerie who refused to throw the family out without a court order, reportedly telling the couple: “Sorry, squatters have all the rights.”
As a result, the disconsolate pair had to spend their first night sleeping in their car while the intruders ate out on their balcony. Their ordeal has lasted three weeks.
“Can you imagine that these people are eating their provisions, sleeping in their sheets and trampling their family memories,” said their lawyer, Renaud Broc.
Their only “kindness”, he added, was “to allow my client, who has a heart complaint, to come up to get his medication” before showing him the door.
Under French law, second homeowners have 48 hours after squatters move in to prove the property belongs to them, and that the intruders broke in and have occupied the premises ever since.
Failing that, a far lengthier legal procedure ensues. Owners who take the law into their own hands risk harsher sentences than the squatters - up to three years in prison and €30,000 (£27,000) fine whereas squatters risk a lighter €15,000 fine for illegal occupation of a property.
Clearly aware of the law, the squatters had been discreetly occupying the villa for more than two days, claimed that a mystery intermediary had given them the keys and had changed the locks.
“We’re dealing with people who are connoisseurs of the subject," said Mr Broc.
With the couple’s plight receiving mushrooming media attention, France’s housing minister, Emmanuelle Wargon, stepped in to insist that “state services and the justice ministry are looking into the case”.
“The procedure can go fast and we’re working on it,” she told CNews. She denied, however, that the case proved there were "deficiencies' in current legislation.
Furious, Mr Kaloustian responded: “She’s taking people for idiots. When your home is violated and you can’t do anything, you don’t find that deficient? There is no justice, things must change,” he said.
He has the backing of the local community and mayor, Georges Botella, who said the squatters had “threatened” Mr Kaloustian but also now required police protection as they had received threats and had their tyres slashed.
After some detective work, local authorities reportedly discovered that the unidentified occupying family were far from homeless but actually owned a house in the Paris area, which they left after a dispute with neighbours.
“They’re not homeless but thugs who breach basic laws,” he told Le Figaro, adding that they may have received help from “traffickers”.
“What’s for sure is this law needs changing,” said Mr Broc.
After three weeks’ stalemate, in a last-minute coup de theatre, the squatters on Monday night had reportedly left the premises after having a furious row in which the mother left with the children. The father was arrested for domestic violence.
However, the pensioners’ lawyer warned that a “friend” of the squatter family was still inside the house meaning they were still unable to move in.