Here is the first in a series of tips which I consider it vital the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat driver (and pedestrian) should know when it comes to driving in France – a country where, for most, getting your hands on a steering wheel means that from now on it’s every man for himself. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of survival on French roads. Since the subject is practically inexhaustible I’ll be giving two more series.
1. Don’t cross the road on a pedestrian crossing before being absolutely sure that oncoming car is going to stop. Though French drivers have made immense progress over the last decades in matters of road courtesy, there still lurks the odd miscreant who still considers pedestrians to be his worst enemy. Similarly, if you’re in the driving seat think twice before stopping to let a pedestrian cross. The driver behind might not have anticipated you doing such a stupid thing, and … well, I’ll leave you to imagine the rest.
2. If you’re first in a line of traffic waiting at a red light, be sure to have your handbrake off, first gear engaged and revving up for a Grand Prix start the instant green appears. French traffic lights change directly from red to green (the sequence is green-amber-red-green)! If you don’t, you’ll be mercilessly honked at from the rear. And don’t get all agitated when a French driver does this. Even though in the UK using your horn in stationary configuration is tantamount to a declaration of war, this is not necessarily the case in France where the more absent-minded driver has been seen to thank his honker(s) with a friendly wave of the hand.
3. If you’re waiting at a halt sign and the car approaching from the left has its right indicator on, don’t assume the driver’s going to turn right and pull out in front of him. Do the same as most French drivers: wait until he actually starts turning as he may simply be unaware it hasn’t been cancelled.
4. Don’t be surprised if the driver of the car ahead doesn’t signal his intention to turn, or to change lanes on the motorway. What matters above all is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody else’s business but his own.
5. Driving in France also involves thinking twice before maintaining too respectful a distance between you and the car in front. In France it’s not the done thing. Since the Frenchman’s love of overtaking is only eclipsed by his hatred of being overtaken, the only way to avoid humiliation is to position and keep his front bumper as close as possible to the rear of the car ahead. Otherwise even clapped-out jalopies will try to get into the space between.
6. Don’t be surprised if you notice at night that lots of vehicles have badly adjusted headlights, or only one working. What matters above all for the French driver is that he can see where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody else’s business but his own.
7. Despite what I’ve indicated above, your right-hand drive car is legally obliged to have its headlight beams adjusted for driving on the right. Stick-on adapters can be used.
8. Driving in France also means not being astonished when the driver of the car in front doesn’t seem to notice he’s driving through a very late amber, or even an early red light. For most French drivers traffic lights are yet one more obstacle (along with roundabouts, stop signs, pedestrian crossings (especially when there’s a pedestrian on them), as well as les flics, maliciously placed in his way to stop them from improving their moyenne – their average journey time.
9. Don’t be surprised if that gentle, well-mannered neighbour of yours turns into a monster at the wheel. Getting a steering wheel in his hands frequently brings out the Mr Hyde in the French driver.
10. It’s important to know that a French Stop sign means exactly what it says. So make sure you bring your vehicle to a complete halt. Reducing your speed to 1/2 km/h is not enough. Sometimes police cars are lying in ambush and you could get a fine for 90 euros with one licence point less.
11. Even though the box junction exists in France (it’s indicated by chequered white boxes painted on the road) most French drivers haven’t got the faintest idea what it’s all about. So you can drop that silly rule which states that you mustn’t enter if your exit road isn’t clear. If you do try to play it à l’anglaise you’ll be waiting until kingdom come. And you’ll be honked at, too. So don’t be afraid to stop bang in the middle like everybody else. I mean, if you can’t beat ’em you can only join ’em. And remember they’ve got what the Anglo-Saxons haven’t: it’s called le Système D which means being opportunistic, and using a combination of personal resources and what’s readily at hand to get you out of a mess. And believe you me, it works! Usually everything ends up sorting itself out!
12. Your British EU member state driver’s licence is valid for driving in France so you don’t need to exchange it. Committing a driving offence, however, automatically means having to swop it for a French one (so that points can be deducted). When it expires, or if it’s lost or stolen, you must renew or replace it with a French licence. You do this by applying to your local Préfecture. Since most of the French are genetically hostile to foreign languages – especially when it’s English – you’ll probably have to pay for an officially-certified translation of the original. And you’ll also have to provide proof of your address and identity (though you’re not required to produce your grandmother’s birth certificate). And just to make sure you’re sound in body and mind you might even have to take a medical.