December brought good news for Britons with second homes in France with parliamentary approval for an ‘automatic visa’ law for this group – however several last steps remain.
The law, allowing Britons who live outside France but have a French second home to come for long stays without complex formalities, is part of a much wider immigration law that is undergoing final scrutiny.
The immigration law - many parts of which were highly controversial - was voted through by both houses of parliament last month but is now being considered by the Conseil constitutionnel, a body which is called upon to check new laws do not clash with constitutional principles. If the Conseil judges that parts of the law do clash, its decision is final.
The body, based in the Palais Royal near the Louvre, received a first application by President Macron for it to scrutinise the immigration law, when he wrote just before Christmas.
Letters were also sent by the president of the Assemblée nationale, a group of left-wing MPs and a group of left-wing senators.
The Conseil recorded these applications officially as of December 26 (27 for the senators), starting a clock of up to one month for it to rule – Friday January 26 would thus be the latest possible date.
Assuming it does not strike out article 1er K, which deals with the easy visiting rights for second-home Britons, interior ministry officials should then draft a decree setting out how the plan will work in practice, in consultation with the top administrative law body the Conseil d’Etat.
There is no set time frame for this but Senator Martine Berthet, who put forward the article as a bill amendment, has said she will speak to the ministry to remind it about the need to draft the decree.
She also told The Connexion today that she estimates the earliest date for the Conseil's ruling is probably in about two weeks time (January 17).
What does Ms Berthet’s article say?
The article says all Britons who own a second home in France should obtain a ‘long-stay visa’ right automatically and without having to make a long-stay visa application. The latter usually involves a long process online and in person, taking paperwork to an office, in order to obtain an official sticker in your passport.
However, legally-speaking, a ‘long-stay visa’ just refers to a right to come and go and stay in France for more than three months - not to a physical document.
It is possible that the planned ‘automatic’ visa for Britons could involve carrying proof of home ownership to show at the border, however Ms Berthet has said that a simple application for a new document to show, proving the right, might be required.
She told senators that her plan, which “aims to lighten the procedures of entry to French territory,” is justified by the complexities facing many second-home Britons who, post-Brexit, have only the option of repeated applications for ‘temporary long-stay visas’ each time they wish to come to their homes for more than three months at a time.
Most of them had bought homes pre-Brexit and thus were affected by a rule change after purchase.
She said that it is also justified by their active participation in the life of their communes and the “unique links which unite our two countries and their importance to the French economy”.
Among other matters, the immigration bill includes rules on foreign people’s residency cards, and on border control.
Left-wing MPs object
Despite this, in their letter to the Conseil, the left-wing MPs state that the article is among many articles which they consider should be removed due to having “absolutely no link, even indirectly, with the text of the law initially submitted”.
This objection falls under article 45 of the Constitution, which states that amendments to laws should have some link, even if indirect, with the topic of the original text.
Senator says there is a link
Ms Berthet said today, however, there are good grounds to hope the article will remain and that she believes there is a link to the subject of the text.
She noted, also, that the Senate's laws commission, which considered the proposal, did not raise any objection that it was not relevant to the rest of the law.
What is more, no MP or senator spoke up during parliamentary debates to say the article was unconstitutional.
The law is also not highly politically-sensitive, including due to issues raised around constintutionality, as some other ideas in the text have been, she said.
"You can seem why, perhaps, some people might have appealed to the Conseil over certain other aspects, but this one, frankly, I don't see why. We'll see what the Conseil has to say."
She added that she hopes the Conseil will understand her wish to have a 'targetted' law, helping Britons because of the specific factors related to them. She recalled that her Senate colleagues had preferred to vote for her plan over one proposed by her colleague Corinne Imbert for a measure for all foreign owners of second homes.
In the worst-case scenario, she would look for other future avenues to reintroduce the idea, she said.
What should second-home owners do now?
Some readers have asked whether it would be advisable to wait for further news of the law before putting in a temporary long-stay visa application for this year.
While we do not have a crystal ball experience shows there can be some time between a new law being passed and practical measures being put in place for the law to be used.
Border guards would also need to be briefed on the new rules.
Ms Berthet said it is possible, if things move fast, the plan could be in place "for the summer" but we do not suggest delaying an application for a stay starting in spring or summer 2024.
In principle, visa applications can only be started three months before the start of your planned stay – and in view of past delays we would advise not leaving it later than around two to three months before.
One expert even previously suggested a workaround involving starting the process up to six months before.