Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Month: January 2018

French Traffic Lights – When Amber and Red Have a Shade of Green

One might be justified in thinking that the French driver’s aspirations to covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time more commonly associated with the Monaco Grand Prix could be seriously compromised by a set of humble traffic lights. In reality, as my Englishman has had ample opportunity to observe, this is only marginally the case. For the French conducteur has at his disposal a number of tactics aimed at reducing this type of enforced pit stop to the barest minimum. Nowhere is this more evident than when the lights change to amber.

Now, for obvious reasons of safety, traffic lights, both in England and France, are programmed not to change directly from green to red. A brief intermediate phase, signalled by amber, warns the approaching motorist that red is about to follow. In England, where limits are sharply defined, things could not be clearer: amber is amber, so when this colour appears the driver brings his vehicle to an obedient halt. In France, where boundaries are generally viewed in a hazier light, amber takes on a perceptible shade of green.

Sooner or later, however, even the French motorist – albeit with rage in his heart – must resign himself to halting at red. Now the Englishman will generally take advantage of this type of obligatory stop to meditate on the more mundane aspects of his daily existence: if it doesn’t rain on Sunday I’ll give the lawn a trim; it’ll be more than my life’s worth if I forget the wife’s birthday next Tuesday, etc., etc. And when the light changes to green he’ll slip into gear, ease off the handbrake and resume his journey at the same leisurely pace. On the contrary, the French driver is on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. He waits with car in gear and handbrake off, eyes fixed intently on the lights ahead so as to be able to blast off the very instant they change to green.

I would, nevertheless, be the first to admit that the more sedate behaviour of the English driver should not be attributed solely to his phlegmatic temperament and innate respect of the rule. The difference in colour sequence between French and English lights has certainly a part to play, too. For in England, traffic lights are set to change from red to amber and then to green, thereby providing the driver with a few precious seconds to slip his vehicle into gear, release the handbrake, and move gently away. In France les feux tricolores are programmed to change directly from red to green, so a much greater effort of concentration is necessary for the driver to get his car off to the required racing start.

Though the French driver shows consummate skill in scraping through traffic lights, even when amber has assumed a ripe tone of red, the same cannot be said of all. For occasionally he is delayed by those less colour blind than himself. In cases like this, he spends his waiting time coldly meditating revenge, and if the imbécile in front is absent-minded enough not to crush accelerator to floor the instant green appears, a prolonged blast of horn will teach him to keep his mind on things.

     It is, however, temporary traffic lights which provide those conditions enabling the Frenchman to demonstrate his inborn skills to the full. Now, in France, as in England, major road works on busy highways usually make it necessary to implement a one-way traffic system. This is regulated by a set of temporary, moveable lights positioned at each end of the road works, and designed to enable motorists coming from either direction to avail themselves in turn of the usable half of the road. And in order to prevent cars meeting face to face in the middle, lights are programmed so that when they change to red at one end they change to green at the other only after a sufficient lapse of time has been allowed to enable oncoming traffic to clear.

In England things are again of child-like simplicity: the lights turn to red, the motorist brings his car to a gentle halt, patiently waits for green, and then continues imperturbably on his way. In France, where things are never simple, the system provides the motorist with a heaven-sent opportunity to shave a few more seconds off his moyenne: for when red appears, not only will any self-respecting Gallic blithely carry on, but the more audacious will even overtake a column of those who now consider it more judicious to stop. Moreover, since major road works are often located well outside towns, temporary lights of this nature present the additional advantage of rarely being the object of police surveillance. It might be thought that at some time or other the inevitable is bound to happen, and the miscreant motorist meets on-coming traffic in the middle. In reality, this is rarely the case. For the French driver has acquired a sixth sense of timing, honed to such an incredibly fine degree, that he usually scrapes through at the other end a fraction of a second before the lights change to green. On the rare occasions when he does make a slight miscalculation and comes face to face with oncoming traffic, the driver in his right indicates what he thinks of the driver in his wrong by that well-known screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple. It goes without saying that this in no way prevents the in-their-rights from joining the ranks of the in-their-wrongs at the next set of temporary lights.

The English driver might be tempted to think that such behaviour can only lead to scenes of indescribable chaos. But this would be to underestimate the impressive effectiveness of le Système D which is applied to the full by one and all: for, as if by magic, the disorder quickly sorts itself out, and the same cycle begins all over again.

Parking Neatly.

Any successful transition from engine propulsion to that obtained by foot involves, of course, finding a suitable place to deposit one’s car. In busy English towns the density of traffic, stringent parking regulations and a general lack of space can make this a daunting task. And though town centre car parks are usually provided, these require payment of a not inconsiderable fee, together with a scrupulous respect of the length of time paid for. What’s more, English car parks are frequently under the surveillance of sadistically-inclined attendants (often women) who gain fiendish pleasure from issuing the stiffest of fines for the slightest deviation. And in the event of serious transgression, they have at their disposal a form of dissuasion, almost unknown in France,  of such redoubtable efficiency that the very mention of it is enough to strike terror in the heart of the most intrepid driver: for the offending car will be mercilessly clapped in the steely grip of the wheel clamp, release from whose clutches can only be obtained by payment of an extortionist fine.

What’s more, once he has found a vacant space, the English motorist is required to deposit his vehicle tidily within. For it is frequently brought to his notice that he who leaves his car with wheels straddling, or even just touching the delimitations will expose himself to a punitive fine.  While in France a certain tolerance is reserved for this type of minor transgression, it goes without saying that in a country which prides itself on having produced an Iron Lady, sanctions are applied as unbendingly as the parking space lines themselves.

This was brought home to the French part of me when, during a recent holiday in England, I decided to do some shopping in a nearby town. After cruising round the main car park for at least a quarter of an hour I finally spotted someone pulling out of a parking space. Quickly depositing my car in it, I proceeded to buy a ticket, duly stuck it behind the windscreen and set off for a stroll round the shops. On coming back (well within the time paid for), I couldn’t help noticing a slip of paper tucked behind a windscreen wiper. Imagine my Frenchie’s stupefaction on discovering it was notification of a fine, applied, it was explained, ‘for not parking within the designated parking area’. Though it was true that viewed from a certain angle one of the front tyres could possibly have been perceived as overlapping one line by half an inch, I keenly felt the injustice of a sanction which imposed a penalty for such a minimal fault. So, on seeing the car park attendant not far away (she was grimly writing out another fine), I walked up to her and explained my point of view. My words couldn’t have fallen on deafer ears. It must have been my Frenchman who at this point decided to change tactics: in a laudable attempt to apply le Système D, he affirmed that the car in the adjoining space had been parked so badly that he’d had no option but to leave his with a tyre touching the line. She remained unmoved. Pointing to a nearby car, one wheel of which could also possibly have been perceived as dangerously approaching  one of the lines he angrily enquired why she hadn’t given him a fine too. With a stiffly polite ‘Thank you very much’ she proceeded to write one out.



Driving in France: Parking

In England, in both public and private areas, the disabled driver is provided with specific, conveniently-placed parking spaces which he may only occupy when proof of disability in the form of an official pass, complete with photo, is clearly displayed behind the windscreen. Though in France parking is regulated in public places, and policemen or traffic wardens are on constant prowl, this is never the case in private supermarket car parks where the police have little jurisdiction, if any at all, and parking attendants together with wheel clamping are practically unknown. Parking spaces for the disabled do exist (often in pairs or more) but, generally speaking, no proof of disability is required; and understandably , in a country whose citoyens are one of the least public-minded on our planet, the only attempts to dissuade the able-bodied driver from parking in them is to colour the space in blue, paint a stylized wheelchair on it, and accompany the whole by the conscience-pricking appeal: ‘Prenez ma place prenez mon handicap’ – Take my space take my disability. Needless to say, the Englishman in me  (here my Frenchie seems to be totally blind) frequently observes perfectly valid motorists (and sometimes even les flics) not only parking their vehicles in this type of space, but doing so with wheels unashamedly straddling the dividing line between.

Is it that same Marxist syndrome which drives the ‘have nots’ to seek revenge on the ‘haves?’ Do driving schools in France consider this aspect of driving management beneath their notice? Or can we simply put it down to a lack of proper care and attention? Whatever the case, the French driver reserves his most vicious parking conduct for nice, expensive-looking cars in stationary configuration – usually in supermarket car parks, and especially when deposited there in brand-new, unsullied form. It is my personal experience that a parked vehicle answering these criteria has little chance of keeping virginity intact very much beyond half an hour. During the neigh-on 45 years of my residence in France I have been fortunate enough to possess nine brand new cars, all of which, incredible as this may sound, have suffered varying degrees of damage in just a few weeks after purchase.

Now, only a couple of months ago, I became the proud owner of another new car. It was my  Brit who hit on the idea of attempting to extend the duration of its pristine state beyond that of its predecessors by systematically parking as far away from other vehicles as a car park area would allow. This strategy – the effectiveness of which he was beginning to congratulate himself on – worked perfectly for six weeks, until that day when I came out of a supermarket, only to note with much dismay that a dent had appeared in the rear bumper. Mystified (the nearest car was parked some 20 yards away), I  proceeded to closer examination, and could only conclude that the damage was more in line with the trajectory of a hand-pushed shopping trolley than that of the combustion-propelled car bumper. At the suggestion of my Froggie I’ve now decided that since I can’t beat ’em I’ll join ’em; so now, when I go to a supermarket not only do I park as close as possible to new-looking cars but throw my door open with such vigour that a dent will be automatically inflicted. And you know what?  I’m actually getting to enjoy it – especially when it’s a more expensive car than mine!

It goes without saying that this strong Gallic relish for clunking into immobilized vehicles is not just limited to those deposited in parking areas. It is also manifest, albeit in far more lethal form, on the motorway hard shoulder. For here the motorist who has been unlucky enough to be driven to this type of enforced parking through breakdown or puncture, can count on a survival time not greatly exceeding that of a Tommy stepping out of his trench during the Battle of the Somme. Since average life expectancy on this narrow strip of no-man’s land is calculated at no more than 20 minutes, it is vital (and this I cannot emphasize enough) that the English motorist should first switch on his warning lights, invite his passengers to get out (on the opposite side to the flow of traffic), and take immediate shelter behind the safety barriers. He should then don his compulsory fluorescent jacket, place his warning triangle at a suitable distance (though this is not obligatory if, in doing so, his life would be endangered) walk carefully to the nearest emergency phone (they’re at most 2 000 metres apart and signalled by signs every 500 metres). There he must press a button which will put him in contact with the gendarmerie. Give them details of the vehicle – make, colour, direction and position (distance posts are located every 100 metres) as well as the nature of the breakdown. They’ll inform a breakdown service which should arrive in 30 to 45 minutes. Then, he must walk back and join the others behind the safety barriers.  That is, assuming he’s still alive to do so.


Driving in France – Never Trust Appearances

Driving in France can be a unique experience.  For one thing  my  English readers may be surprised to learn that a recent report suggests that one in ten French motorists is not in possession of a driving licence. As my English alter so often reminds me, what matters for the French driver is that he knows he can drive, and that whether he can drive or not is nobody’s business but his own. Moreover, driving in France at night soon brings to light of day the fact that a surprising number of vehicles have defective headlights (i.e. badly adjusted, or in need of bulb replacement). It must again be understood that what is important for the Frenchman is that he can see where he’s going, and that where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own. Similar conclusions can also be drawn with regard to traffic indicators. Now in England all cars are fitted with direction indicators, the purpose of which is, of course, to inform other motorists of their drivers’ intention to deviate from a straight line. In France cars also have indicators. These are almost totally superfluous to needs. For what is important to the French driver is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own.

It would, nevertheless, be wrong to assume that the Gallic never uses his traffic indicators. But what is more normal in a land where everybody does the opposite to what is expected that, though he rarely signals his intention to turn right or left, he sometimes does so when he means to go straight on? An indication of this was provided the other morning when I left home, drove down the side street where I live, stopped at the halt sign at the end, and patiently waited for a gap to appear in the traffic. Finally, everything was clear on the right. On looking to the left, my Englishman (it was he who was driving) observed a small van approaching some 50 yards away with right indicator winking. Now, he might have been forgiven for thinking that, when a vehicle is approaching with right winker on, it’s safe to assume its driver is signalling his intention to turn right. So out he pulled. The screech of brakes and prolonged honking of horn which followed proved my Anglo had made a horribly mistake. Though the van driver managed to stop just in time to avoid a collision his fury was great, and was accompanied by the usual screwing action of forefinger applied to temple. My Englishman could only surmise that, shortly before, circumstances had obliged the driver (perhaps there had been a police car behind him) to signal his intention to change directions. But so unaccustomed was he to using his indicator that he was simply unaware it hadn’t automatically cancelled itself. Proof that my experience was not uncommon is provided by the fact that the great majority of French motorists wait until a vehicle actually begins turning before pulling out in front.



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