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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Health changes hit French dream
Record numbers of Britons are turning their daydreams into reality and retiring early to a place in the sun, but it is often not quite as easy as people imagine.

The BBC's Brian Hanrahan has travelled to the South of France to look at how changes in French healthcare rules are affecting some ex-pats.

St Tropez
The south of France is a popular retirement destination

Charles and Ilse Mochan bought their house in France last year.

It's a rambling old pharmacy with several acres of woodland which they are still cutting back to open up superb views of the valley below and the Pyrenees above.

After early retirement from the Foreign Office, they were just easing into their new lifestyle when they got a rude shock - a letter from the local authority saying it was withdrawing their health cover and telling them to surrender their registration card.

Without the registration card, and with no insurance in place, that would have left the couple possibly having to pay the full cost of any medical treatment - potentially financially crippling.

"It was a shock to me, but I can read French reasonably well" says Charles.

"I can see that if you got a letter like this and your French was poor and you asked a neighbour to read it for you, people would tend to go ahead and hand the cards in".

The French government has now told the British embassy that the new rules will only apply to newcomers, but there is still great confusion about who will be affected.

In the local market place, the French are now rubbing shoulders with British, Dutch, Japanese and Germans who have moved here.

But the French government says it will not go on subsidising their healthcare. It will cover those who are working - and pensioners over 65 - but not those who retire early.

Insurance policies

Insurance expert, Larry Fulton, estimates it will cost newcomers at least 1,000 per person, per year, to buy basic health insurance.

"If they can't get insurance it's unthinkable they can stay here, in France, and take the risk of not having insurance of some sort.

"You can always walk under a bus, you can always have a heart attack . You never know what's round the corner".

Europe has encouraged people to move from one country to another.

When they were just a few, they were absorbed without much thought or effort. But now hundreds of thousands are joining these migrations, countries are having to think about the consequences.

And it has shown what complex national calculations lie behind the simple question "Who pays for a visit to the doctor?"

Dr Thierry Sabatierre has a one-room surgery on the village street.

It only costs 14 a visit, but more sophisticated treatment will soon rack up the bills - especially as few insurance policies will cover existing conditions. Dr Sabatierre thinks the British will have trouble paying.

"They are not all very rich, they would have to go home".

Meanwhile estate agent Alison Irving continues to sell the dream - large houses at low cost - deep in the French countryside.

She's very clear about the advantages of living in France.

"I think it's the airlinks from Touluse, the cheap airflights out here, and the introduction of broadband.

"That means people can do the jobs they did in England, in a better environment".

But for those retiring early the dream is going to get a lot more expensive.

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