An American's Guide to Driving in France
France is the most visited country on earth (in raw numbers, not per capita—remarkable, non?), and a certain number of those visitors are bound to come by car. Fine: but most of those people are other Europeans who are either intimately familiar with (Italians, Greeks...) or at least casually aware of (Germans, Britons...) life in a world where automobile safety and traffic laws are met by the local population with something between tired indifference and a giant middle finger.
In other words, they're used to it.
But what about those of us from the land of giant traffic lanes, cavernous parking spaces, authoritarian traffic police and the belief that our cars are sacrosanct enclaves of freedom and independence? WHAT ABOUT US???
An American can learn all s/he needs to know about driving in France with a visit to the local grande surface (supermarket). Observe the improbable chaos of shopping carts parked in the most obstructive manner possible, the clogged aisles often filled with workers during peak hours, the occasional angry young man who's not slowing down for anybody, the unending series of mostly-harmless low-speed collisions and half-hearted apologies, the alarming lack of space in which to maneuver and the general inability/unwillingness of anyone to think of the overall flow of shoppers when deciding when to stop and go.
That's it: master the grocery store, master the roads. Wax on, wax off.
Despite EVERYTHING, most French people get where they're going—just like most people get their groceries through checkout—without major incident. It takes longer than it should and far too many cars (and some people) are damaged by a very Gallic indifference to safety, efficiency and the personal space of others...but, like most things in France, once you figure out how to get into the groove of your surroundings it's not so bad.
With that in mind, here are ten survival techniques from an American who's spent much of the past decade driving around this beautiful country:
- Stay calm. Seriously. This is, in the end, all that really matters. People do asinine things with their cars here—particularly in the city—with stupefying consistency. Fine: You're never going to get justice. Even if a police officer were to pop out of nowhere at just the right moment, in the absence of serious injuries nothing bad is going to happen to the chauffard (the French even have a special word for "bad driver") who did whatever it is you're mad about. It's lord of the flies out there: your best policy is to avoid the accident, claim victory and get on with your trip.
- Understand (some of) the signage. Despite the confusion
(and occasional straight-up inaccuracy), it pays to know what at least a few of
604 existing French road signs mean. For example, that sign on the right? That means there
is a speed radar camera coming up. These things mean business: I once got a
ticket for going 92 km/h in a 90 km/h zone. Tough crowd! Although you can't lose points like we can,
your rental car company will remember you when they get their postcard, and it
will be expensive. (Unless of course you're driving your evil brother-in-law's
car: "But...an American was driving my car that day!" isn't going to get him
very far in court.)
The other signs you need to know how to read are the ones that tell you how to get where you're going. Not always easy: as is the case in the photo (right), two signs giving contradictory advice often sit side by side! The key is how you want to get somewhere: the blue signs send you invariably—and occasionally at great inconvenience—to the autoroute, or freeway. They're usually in impeccable condition but be prepared for sticker shock: for example, Lyon to Marseille costs more than the entire length of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes combined. The green signs take you to routes nationales: these are smaller, mostly two-lane affairs that sometimes run more or less parallel to the newer freeways. Some of them are beautiful, scenic byways not to be missed...and others look like the forgotten sections of Route 66 (this is research worth doing ahead of time). White signs refer mostly to routes départementales, which are also a mixed bag (see below).
- Embrace your inner roundabout. You have no choice: you
can't swing a baguette around here without hitting a rond-point. The
sad truth is that, as with the metric system and single-payer health care,
Europeans have been right about this from the start: roundabouts are very often
more efficient than stoplight-controlled intersections. Unless otherwise
marked, it works like this: nobody has the right-of-way, and everyone has the
right to enter and exit the roundabout when they can do so without bothering
anyone else. If you can get in without causing a wreck, step on it. If you
can't, don't. If the stream of cars keeping you from doing so is so thick that
you're in danger of waiting all day, the proper French thing to do is inch your
nose into the stream of traffic until somebody, whether out of kindness or
fear, lets you in.
In either case, make sure to wave.
The other thing you need to know about roundabouts is the signage. They can look pretty crazy and are often drawn in a geographically impossible fashion, but no matter: just count the number of exits on the sign before the one you want, count them in the real world and then take the right exit. For example, look at the image on the right: if you want to go to Agen by route nationale, you take the fourth option off the roundabout, whether or not it represents a 90° left turn from the direction you were going. That usually works. If in doubt, just go around again! No harm done.
- Stay calm. Seriously. So what if you spend two minutes in a roundabout, Griswold-style? People do it all the time. Just don't hit anybody and it's all good. Besides, most roundabouts are near other roundabouts, which gives you an easy failsafe if you screw up and need to flip a U.
- Know what kind of road you're on, and whether the lanes matter on
said variety of road. Truth is that most French drivers don't have
much use for lane markers on any type of road, but there does seem to be a
hierarchy. On freeways and other multiple-lane, single-direction roads, road
Pac-Man is tolerated but not ubiquitous and most people will pick a
lane when it matters. More alarmingly, crossing the center line on winding
two-lane roads is ubiquitous and can be genuinely frightening.
Sometimes the car is too big for a narrow road, sure, but most of the time it's
just because...that's what they do. When you ask a French driver why they do
this they shrug and mutter something offhand about how the whole road is there
and empty so why be a rule-follower, but a lot of accidents result from this
habit: it's in your best interest to stay high and wide around turns and just
let them have half of your lane if they want it.
...and then there are the roads that are too narrow for two cars, period. There are lots of them, and they even have their own demarcation: tiny white pips, about 25 meters apart (see photo). This is the government's tacit admission that, "yeah, this road's really too small for modern vehicles so go ahead and drive in the middle and try not to have a head-on when someone else is doing the same thing." Luckily most of these roads are in the countryside, where a smaller percentage of the population seems to have watched Mad Max too many times as a child.
- Stay calm. You can't do anything about it. They're going the other way on a tiny road: you can't hunt them down and shoot them like you can in LA. Besides, if you waste your time getting upset about it you're going to ruin your vacation with high blood pressure. Breathe. Look at the trees. Smile. You're in France!
- Look out for scooters and motorcycles. We're omnipresent (especially in town), and all that crazy-looking stuff we do is either legal or tolerated and not nearly as suicidal as it looks. Filtering (i.e. passing to the head of the line at a red light) and lane-splitting (i.e. passing between slow-moving or stopped cars on multi-lane roads) are legal, and most other kinds of two-wheeled advancement are tolerated by the fuzz. French drivers know this, and rarely get mad when two-wheeled vehicles roll ahead of them in traffic: in fact, when I go to work in the morning about half of drivers will move over to liberate the "scooter lane." Where a fairness-obsessed American will be indignant about someone not waiting their turn "like everyone else," a French driver will think "why should that guy have to wait when there's room for him to get by?" While you don't have to follow suit, you do want to check your side mirrors before you change lanes and/or do anything unexpected: if you take out a scooter, it's going to be your fault. Even if it wasn't.
- Parking. As you will soon notice, anywhere a car fits
without completely blocking traffic is a de facto parking place. If the city
doesn't want people to park somewhere, they put something heavy in the way: if
not, it's fair game. Also, people will completely block traffic if they find it
too bothersome to find a spot for, say, stopping at the bakery. Or a bar. For
an hour. Part of a French city's aural tapestry is the sound of long-term
honking designed to remind whoever blocked in three cars that it's time to
finish his Ricard and come out and move his car.
They almost always apologize, though, and sometimes they even come out and move their car. As if they are doing you a favor.
Incidentally, no matter how stupidly someone has parked you can't call a private tow company in France. You have to call the cops, wait for them (think 45-60 minutes, minimum), hope they decide the tow is justified, then wait for the police-approved tow truck to show up. It's almost always easier (by design, I believe) to find the driver and have them move the car the old-fashioned way.
(If you want to live on the edge you can try parking this way too, but only if you bought full-coverage insurance for your rental: all those key marks, broken windshield wipers and knee-sized dents you see on cars around town didn't get there by accident.)
- ...and if you do have an accident? Pretty unlikely, right?
Sure, but check this out: I drove in the United States for 15 years, first as a
young wanderer erring about the country and later as a regular worker with
serious commutes in several major cities (including Chicago, which I naively
thought at the time to be a very impolite driving city). In that time, the car
I was driving never once touched another vehicle (at least not while I was
Since my relocation to the Old Continent less than 10 years ago, not only have I seen dozens of accidents happen before my eyes but I myself have been rear-ended three times, backed into (T-bone style) at low speed by a total moron once, scraped side mirrors twice and once, yes once, I gently backed into a guy on purpose with my Smart car because he wouldn't let me access a tiny parking space that I had clearly signaled my intent to inhabit (I know, I know, stay calm, right?? It was raining and I really wanted that spot...).
So it might happen to you. But it's cool: most accidents here are small and stupid, not enormous and violent. French drivers carry complicated little forms to fill out in the event of a non-injury accident, and one often sees people on the side of the road, well not happy, necessarily, but not at each other's throats either, scribbling away. Also, it's worth noting that none of my little collisions even made it to the insurance-claim phase: two of the rear-end jobs were so minor that we didn't even get out of the car! If the damage is small, most people here would rather pay for the repair themselves (or, more likely, have their cousin or neighbor or whoever fix it for 20 bucks and a bottle of Côte Rôtie) than involve something as distasteful as an insurance claim. Even the T-bone job, which happened to me in a work vehicle and involved extensive body and paint damage, was handled "between friends": the boss of the moron's company just paid my boss for the cost of the repair and everyone was happy: no ding on the moron's record, no increased insurance premiums, no jacked-up insurance rates for the work...gotta love it, right?
- Stay calm. Seriously. You're going to be tailgated
mercilessly (it's best just not to look or, if you feel your blood pressure
going up, pull over and let Monsieur Formula One pass). You're going to be cut
off. A lot. People are going to drift into your lane. People are going to pass
you in places where no sane person would even consider it. People are going to
systematically cause gridlock. People are going to pass you at double the speed
limit. You're going to pass through villages where 300-year-old stone buildings
dictate that the road is one lane with 0% visibility, but where traffic custom
dictates that it's a two-lane road. You're going to be confused by arcane
But it's all OK, because you're going to be driving in France, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, and one that has a wide network of well-maintained roads and a things-to-see/time-spent-traveling ratio that might be the best in the world; you're going to eat in weird restaurants and stay at funky hotels in places where the train can't take you; you're going to drift along country roads, seemingly alone in the universe, as distant mountains beckon and large bodies of water are never far away; you're going to follow in the footsteps of revolutionaries and crusaders and anarchists and merchants and centurions and gypsies, Burgundians and Franks, Normans and Lancastrians, Merovingians and Plantagenêts, maybe even Napoléon! To travel across France is to live her history: stop and read the roadside monuments to learn what saints traveled your route before you and what kings stayed in the villages you pass through, what painters immortalized the countryside, what architects designed the cathedrals and town halls. Driving in France is necessary to know her, at least if you don't have a month or more to do it on a bicycle...
...and you're not going to let a few lead-footed chumps with compensation issues and the locals' general lack of spatial awareness keep you from that, are you?