Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. France is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your French language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, driving in France can be both a joy and a frustration for the French people.
Because of its size compared to its population, France is one of the more pleasant countries in Europe to drive around. It has a well-maintained network of toll expressways (“autoroute”), highways (“routesnationales”), and minor roads. Outside the main cities, it feel fairly traffic-free, but French drivers can drive very fast. Like most of continental Europe, the French drive on the right side of the road, and speeds and distances are measured and given in kilometers.
The speed limit is 130 kmph (80 mph) on expressways, 90 kmph (56 mph) on the roads, and 50 kmph (31 mph) in built-up areas. French drivers don’t always observe these limits, and will often flash their headlights at cars coming fast in the opposite direction to warn them of police speed traps, what it called “faire des appels de phare.”
Those driving in France are compelled by law to carry certain things. One is a red warning triangle that must be erected behind the car if you have to stop because of an accident or a breakdown. Another is a Red Cross first-aid pack, so that minimal first aid can be administered after an accident.
Finally, in the case of drivers with cars imported from Britain, dimmers must be placed over the headlights so as not to dazzle oncoming drivers at night, and each car must carry a spare set of headlamps in case of failure. If the police stop you for any reason, you may be fined if you do not have these items.
At the beginning and end of the month, the main roads in France are clogged. The expressway south from Lyon to the sea and sun is crowded with cars piled high with camping gear and bicycles or encumbered with trailers and caravans. Nearly everyone on the road is jockeying for position, isstressed and hot-tempered, and with the inevitable breakdowns further delaying the already-interminable traffic, it can be incredibly unpleasant.
It is not a good time to be a foreigner on French roads, and the French themselves consider the former RN 1, running north-south, a death trap. Other dangerous times on the roads are the national holidays of July 14 (French National Day) and August 15, when Catholics celebrate the Assumption of Mary.
The wearing of seatbelts is compulsory, and it is illegal to have a child in the front seat even if strapped in or on a passenger’s lap. The French police apply the law rigorously, especially in the case of drinking and driving, and can withdraw a license on the spot when drivers are found over the legal limit. On the other hand, they can be especially tolerant toward foreigners driving foreign cars. If you stop at a snack bar on the expressway you will be served only nonalcoholic drinks, including nonalcoholic beer, unless you are also buying food [The French Culinary Experience: Great Food and Wine].
To avoid traffic congestion, the French police try to offer alternative itineraries. In operation “Bison Futé,” they invite French holidaymakers to try different routes advertised by “Bison Futé” signs. These routes are also detailed on French TV and radio and mobile phone applications.
Expressways in France are mainly toll roads, so be prepared if you’re taking a road trip or a scenic drive. As you enter the expressway, you will either pay a few coins or collect a ticket and pay at the other end. The “routesnationales” (N roads) run parallel to the toll roads and are free, as are the narrower D roads, or “routesdépartementales.” It is common for Londoners to take the Eurostar under the English Channel to Paris and rent a car to drive around the country on holiday.
On the “routesnationales” and “routesdépartementales,” there are circular intersections, or roundabouts. Traditionally in France, priority is given to traffic entering the roundabouts from the right, but now traffic on the roundabouts has priority. Many now have signs warning you that “Vous n’avez pas la priorité” (you don’t have priority), and to “Cédez le passage” (yield). Bicycles are a common form of transportation in urban, as well as many rural areas, and it is common to see university students on their way to class in the same traffic lanes as charter buses.
As for pedestrians, French drivers are not very considerate. Even where there are pedestrian crossings, it is unwise to march out, confident of your right of way. Consequently, to calm the traffic, increasing numbers of speed bumps are being introduced into built-up areas, and these are hard enough and high enough to damage a car’s suspension if driven over at speed too often.
Getting gasoline (“essence”) is not difficult. France has a mixture of self-service (credit card) and garage-hand assisted stations. Total, France’s main brand, has its own service stations. There are three types of gasoline: sans plomb and super (both unleaded) and gasoil (diesel).
As it is by far the largest city in France, Paris is the greatest driving challenge. The one-way system and the constant shortage of parking can be irritating. French drivers park in the smallest spaces and make use of their bumpers to enlarge the space between parked cars. In the city center, parking spaces are metered, with high prices to encourage the use of public transport. August is the only time when driving is easy in Paris, as that is when most people have gone on holiday, and entire factories and firms close down for the entire the month.
Paris has a ring road surrounding it, called the “Boulevard Péripherique” or “Périph.” It is the best way of avoiding the center of Paris, but it also gets crowded in the rush hours between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. If you are driving on the “périfph” and are unsure of your exit, be sure to stay in the right-hand (or exit) lane. Normally, you will be given a 5,000-meter (3-mile) and a 1,000-meter (0.6-mile) warning that you are approaching your exit.
There are two periods when main roads should be avoided. These are the weekends either side of July 31/August 1 and August 31/September 1.
Car rental in France is the same as anywhere in the world, and you need to show your international driving license and your international insurance certificate, known in Europe as a green card. You can find car rental information at the airport when you land or from your hotel concierge; many travel booking sites also offer car rental services online, so you can make your reservation ahead of time. In Paris, it is possible to rent European luxury sports cars for just 90 Euro for a day’s joyriding.
As mentioned before, gasoline in France can be very expensive, but electric cars and hybrids are also more popular there than in the States, so you may consider this option to live (and drive) as the locals do, as well as for economical or financial reasons. Also, remember that in France you can be fined on the spot for speeding, and you also lose points off your license. To avoid corruption, fines can’t be paid in cash, and you’ll have 45 days to pay. If you commit an infraction with a rental car, the rental company with usually charge you credit card with that amount plus a penalty.
The equivalent of the auto assistance company AAA in the United States and the AA in Britain is “L’Association Automobile,” which has reciprocal arrangements with its US and UK equivalents. Check this out with your provider before you leave, and check that you have medical insurance that will provide healthcare coverage while you are in France; in the event of an accident, hospital treatment can be very expensive.