Mayor sues state over cracks in houses in south-west France

Cracks appeared in 302 houses in small town in Dordogne after droughts but no catastrophe naturelle decree was announced for the commune

The cracks appeared due to droughts and can lead to the foundations of the house cracking too

A mayor in Dordogne is suing the state over its refusal to declare a state of catastrophe naturelle (natural disaster) relating to droughts which left cracks in hundreds of houses in his commune.

Pascal Serre represents Chancelade, one of the suburbs of Périgueux, a town of 4,300 people where no fewer than 302 houses have developed cracks after summer droughts.

“They are spread all over the commune and are almost all new houses built out of concrete blocks between 1980 and 2015,” Mr Serre told The Connexion.

Read more: Ten million homes in France risk structural cracks after heatwaves

“In every case the cracks appeared after dry summers and the communes all around us have had catastrophe naturelle decrees, but we have not.” 

Insurance will not cover the cracks

“No insurance policies will cover the work for these cracks, some of which are so bad that emergency work has had to be done to ensure the whole structure is not at risk.”

He has taken the case against the state to the tribunal administratif saying that the criteria for declaring a catastrophe naturelle are too old.

“They were set around 30 years ago based on large blocks drawn on a map and are totally unsuited for present conditions where some houses all over an area are affected and others not.”

Reforming the way catastrophe naturelle decrees are issued is an area the government has promised to look at in its reform of the system, prompted in part by the high number of cracked houses all over France.

However, although the government has talked a lot about the problem, this has not yet translated into action.

Reform not yet in place 

An executive order was issued in February 2023 aimed at reforming the catastrophe naturelle system for cracked houses, and tightening controls on insurance experts, but decrees to bring this into law have still not been issued.

“We know the courts will take a long time to hear the case and in the meantime the government might change things to help our people in the commune more,” he said.

“The court case, we hope, will serve as a push to the government to get on with things because they cannot stay as they are.”

Read more: What to do if structural cracks appear in your French property

Most of the cracks which appear after droughts are caused by the clay soil houses are built upon, which shrinks as it dries, and then expands when the rains come.

The resulting subsidence can crack walls, floors and foundations.

Some Connexion readers have experienced problems with insurance claims even after their commune has been declared a catastrophe naturelle, because experts sent by insurance companies say the cracks are caused by other factors.

A surge in complaints about the experts, who are usually freelance and sometimes paid commission on the money saved by not paying out claims, has prompted the government to promise a reform of the system.

Third most expensive year ever for insurers

Meanwhile, insurers are warning that the cost of insurance is likely to rise significantly due to climate change.

Trade body France Assureurs said floods, storms and cracked houses cost insurers €6.5billion in 2023, the third most expensive year ever.

The most expensive year was 1999, when two notable storms sent the bill to €17 billion, followed by 2022, when storms and drought cost €10 billion.

France’s catastrophe naturelle insurance system is unique to the country.

It is based on both the state and insurance companies paying into a reserve fund which is only unlocked when a state decree of catastrophe naturelle is declared on a commune by commune basis.