Letters of the law


Mary Hall offers a useful insight into some of the terms you might encounter in formal letters if you don’t deal with issues as they arise…

Hi Mary, Pete here, how are things? I’m scanning some stuff over to you.” I know what’s coming. Some time ago Pete will have had a letter (or two) which he ignored. Now more correspondence has arrived, looking like demands for money with menaces. I’ve dug Pete out of these sorts of hole before, and he’s not 
the only one. It pays to understand certain key words in formal correspondence.



A majoration on a bill is a penalty for late payment. If you don’t pay your taxe d’habitation or fonci�re on time, you’ll get a reminder – plus a 10% majoration, or penalty. If you get a speeding ticket and pay it quickly it’s cheaper than delaying it. A fine for speeding at 72kph in a 70kph limit will be €45 if you pay straight away; forget to do so and it could go up to €180! (Sadly, prompt payment won’t stop you losing a point on a French driving licence).



An innocent little word, covering a multitude of unexpected expenses. Frais as an adjective (f. fra�che), means, as you know, cool, as in ‘servir frais’ on bottles of ros�. Frais as a noun in monetary terms pops up all over the place and means ‘charges’ or ‘fees’.

You can be charged frais de relance for the cost of sending you a bill reminder. Such fees must be reasonable, and typically they are just postage plus a few euros. Anything unreasonable can be challenged in the courts – but do pay your original debt first.

Frais d’envoi or frais de livraison are postage or delivery charges. Then there might be frais annuels or frais de dossier on an insurance policy, and frais administratifs for concert tickets or flights.



If you get a letter with this phrase at the beginning, usually in capital letters, pay attention. Demeure here doesn’t mean house, it comes from the latin ‘mora’ meaning late, so demeure = of late. Mise is putting or placing. It’s an official posting of a warning of lateness, i.e. a final demand for payment before legal action is taken. It really does mean ‘pay up or else’.

Under French law, a ‘lettre de mise en demeure’ must clearly state the facts of the case, how much is owed and the date by which the account must be settled. The debt will probably be more than the unpaid bill; int�r�t (interest), a majoration and frais may have been added.



A huissier is a bailiff, and if he’s sending you letters you must have ignored a ‘mise en demeure’. He’s after your dosh and he might be saying that if he doesn’t get it he’ll move on to a ‘saisie des biens’, i.e. removing and selling your furniture, taking your car or accessing your bank accounts to cover the debt he’s appointed to pursue.

He’s no back-street debt collector – this guy has legal muscle behind him. He’s not just used for big bills – France Telecom and utility companies will take matters that far for a bill of under €200. After all, you’ll be paying the bailiff’s fees on top of your debt!



A seemingly more gentle approach might come from your insurance company’s ‘recouvrement contentieux’ (debt collection) arm when you haven’t paid your premium. “XXX nous a mandat� pour le recouvrement aimable de la somme de… contrat N�…malgr� une ‘mise en demeure’…” A polite way of saying ‘pay the premium plus all the fees, we did warn you, or we really do move to court proceedings – and possibly the huissier’.



Water companies have the right to read your meter, and if they can’t get reasonably frequent access, they can legally turn off the tap and charge you for this ‘service’ (and indeed for turning it on again). If you get a letter with this heading from your water supplier, it is important that you get in touch with them straightaway to get the meter read. Going back to dear Pete, I rang the water company to organise his meter reading. Fortunately this means making a call to a helpful human in a local office, as opposed to an anonymous call centre. The girl promptly called the meter reader on his mobile and booked him to meet me on his way home (he lives just down the road).


A pr�l�vement is the act of taking something – be it blood (pr�l�vement sanguin), cells for a biopsy or money from your bank account. The best way to ensure
that you don’t miss payment dates for regular bills is to set them up with a pr�levement automatique. France Telecom, internet service providers, EDF, water companies and the local taxes, habitation and fonci�re, can all be paid this way. You get advance notification of the bills by post or email so that you can make sure you’ll have enough funds in your account. If funds are insufficient see above, under ‘mise en demeure’ (are you reading this, Pete?).



Most house and car insurance can only be cancelled at the renewal date (la date d’�ch�ance), or when you sell the property or your car, and only if you have informed your insurer in good time with a correctly worded lettre de r�siliation, sent by recorded delivery. Simply not paying the renewal premium because you’ve found a better deal doesn’t work. If you haven’t formally cancelled the contract it will run on, and even if you’ve signed up elsewhere the original insurer is entitled to his premium. Contracts of indeterminate length, such as those for telephone or internet services are known as les contrats 
� reconduction tacite. If you want to cancel, you must give formal notice in accordance with the terms of the contract.


Mary Hall is a chartered surveyor

Tel: 0033 (0)5 65 24 66 46

[email protected]

Share to:  Facebook  Twitter   LinkedIn   Email

Previous Article Three French kitchen ideas
Next Article Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Related Articles