British expats in France who lost their right to benefit from the French state health system have won it back in a landmark decision.

Thousands of Brits who retired early and moved to France had budgeted for the fact that they would be able to access the state health system when their UK cover with the E106 ran out after two and a half years.

Last September though, the French authorities said that British people, and other European Union nationals, could no longer access the state system if they had no social security cover from working in France and would have to take out private health insurance.

This caused a lot of worry as health insurance for this age group is expensive and those with long-term problems cannot always get sufficient cover. Also the move came at a time when pensions from the UK were effectively diminishing in value due to Sterling becoming weaker against the Euro. Those with chronic conditions such as diabetes were facing huge bills and many feared they would have to sell up and return to the UK.

The French government said the changes were the result of an EU directive on residency.

In November, however, following pressure from expats and British officials, France made a concession to allow anyone already receiving state health cover by November 23 to continue doing so. But it refused to allow anyone not in the system by that date to join.

This left at least 7,500 Britons living in France facing a financial crisis. The sudden retroactive legislation was deemed grossly unfair by the British community in France. Many, including cancer and diabetes patients, had given up their homes and private health cover back home.

Now the British Embassy announced it had received a letter from Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, the French health minister, announcing that any Briton who immigrated to France before November 23, 2007, whether or not in the French health system before that date, can now access it. Only those moving to France after that date would not qualify.

‘This news comes as a huge relief for many British expats living in France. These so called reforms were totally unnecessary. I am glad the French government has backtracked,’ said Mary Honeyball, a British MEP who submitted a written declaration in the European Parliament condemning the French move.

French Health Issues, an expat lobby group that has spearheaded the fight, said it has been ‘quite and achievement’ to get the change of mind.