French banking rules: when can officials freeze your account?

The authorities’ right to take money from individuals surprises many newcomers

French banks can charge you up to €100 if they are instructed to freeze money on your account

It can come as a surprise to newcomers to France that the French authorities have the right to instruct your bank to freeze your bank account and automatically take money to cover any debts you may owe them.

We look at in what circumstances such a seizure can happen and what recourse you have if affected.

The legal order that lets the authorities seize assets from a third party to pay debts to the state is known as a saisie administrative à tiers détenteur (SATD), or third party administrative seizure . 

Another type of administrative seizure for private debts, known as a saisie attribution, can be filed by a commissaire de justice following a court judgment.

Read more: Can I find details of any driving fines in France online? 

When can the state impose a seizure?

SATDs are applied for various sorts of debts to the state (usually the Trésor public) including unpaid taxes, parking fines, hospital fees or school canteen bills.

In the vast majority of cases, the debtor should be aware that they have a debt, having received the initial notification followed by at least one reminder (often with an added surcharge).

In the case of a parking ticket for instance, a surcharge is often added if the debt is not paid within 45 to 60 days.

If this is not paid within three months, the Trésor public could begin the process of claiming it via an SATD, plus an additional surcharge of 10-15%.

Read more: Former French Interior Minister jailed for unpaid debts to the state 

What happens if you receive a seizure order?

The SATD notice is sent simultaneously to you and to your bank. It will inform you who is issuing it and why, and tell you how to contest it.

On receipt of the notice, your bank will have 30 days to pay the order, for which it can use any monetary account (current account, savings and certain assurances vies) but not investment accounts such as a PEA or a Compte-titres.

The bank is also obliged to freeze your account for 15 days prior to the transaction:

  • If the debt is less than €2,000, only this amount is frozen 

  • If it the debt is more than €2,000, all your accounts can be frozen 

Most banks will also charge you for this service. This fee can be up to 10% of the SATD to a maximum of €100.

However, the SATD order cannot:

  • Empty your accounts completely

  • Leave you with a negative balance

  • Leave you with less than a set amount, known as the solde bancaire insaisissable, SBI, or unseizable account balance. This is €635.71

You have two months to dispute the SATD on receipt of the notice. There are two ways to do this:

Contest a non-conforming SATD

If the SATD notice is lacking information, including the motive, the identity of the body issuing it, along with the debtor’s name and address, you can obtain a reprieve under law 2017-1775 and decree 2018-968.

For this you must write to the Directeur départemental des finances publiques (DDFIP), or departmental tax authority, and inform them of the technical irregularities in the notice.

Contest surcharges levied on SATDs

In many cases the debtor has no knowledge of the original bill or fine and so did not willfully refuse to pay it.

This can happen if, for instance, someone moves home, commits a parking violation and the fine is sent to their old address before the change in address is applied to the vehicle’s carte grise registration document.

In such cases, the debtor should contact the authority issuing the SATD, with evidence of their good faith (change of address, for instance) and request that the surcharge on the original fine be withdrawn.

Note that the authorities are unable to impose SATDs on bank accounts outside the EU, and need more administrative legwork to enforce them on accounts elsewhere in the EU. 

Nonetheless, the state can still recover foreign debts through litigation.