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Zéro de Conduite: How to Drive in Paris

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 It always starts with the best of intentions. There will be a guest or two staying over, and after dinner we’ll retire to the living room. During a pause in the conversation, I will raise a finger in a sham of spontaneity, and cry out, “Say, why don’t we go for a drive!”

The impromptu offer is calculated to trigger oohs. Nothing pleases visitors more than urban safaris at an hour when the City of Light earns its name.

A small obstacle to these excursions is that I don’t own a car in Paris. Traditionally I climb behind the wheel of some Peugeot or Renault only when we have rented one for vacation. On those occasions I grit my teeth and make a beeline from the agency straight out of town. It’s only days later, when we creep back into the capital, that the suspense mounts. We always arrive late, so return of the vehicle is postponed till morning. Late-night tourism beckons.

Because driving in the capital is the ultimate test of a person’s Parisianness (exceeding even the Parisianness of many Parisians), one is tempted, in the first instance, to try it, and in the second, should one survive the trying, to demonstrate it for others.

As Voltaire said, there’s nothing less common than common sense, so let me share a few tips for the extreme sports enthusiasts inclined to give it a whirl.

First, keep in mind that it’s a jungle out there. In the States we grant driver’s licenses to everyone who shows up, rather like participation awards at childrens’ spelling bees. In France drivers are subjected to long months of training at schools known as auto-écoles—a term that also suggests the strict self-schooling that is part and parcel of Frenchness. Drivers in Paris actually know what they are doing, and this fact puts you at a disadvantage. Therefore, you need to aim for hours when there are as few of them on the road as possible. Your ideal target is 3:00 a.m. during the month of August. Adjust as necessary.

Second, be sure to commit your route to memory before announcing the midnight tour. A trained monkey could (and sometimes does) drive through Paris using GPS. Your goal is to appear more proficient than a monkey, so you must know your itinerary by heart. Bonus: this frees you to focus on singing out plausible names for the structures you will pass during the circuit.

Next, when it turns out you have failed to memorize your route, avoid swearing at yourself. Instead, curse at the other drivers or, better, at the city itself for having forced you on such detours. Slapping your forehead with your palm will give a particularly Parisian flair to your discontent. To heighten the impression of authenticity, you can try the back-handed finger-flip, directed toward other drivers—but only when they’re not looking.

Make sure your doors are locked.

Keep in mind that many of the larger boulevards have dedicated bus and taxi lanes. Some of these run along the edges of the street, where such paths belong. But occasionally they drift inward, occupying the center of the road. Often they will be separated from the car lanes by median strips that are awkward (but not impossible) to cross should you find yourself channeled in the wrong direction.

Make sure your passengers are buckled in, with the seatbelts pulled snug.

Remember that the word for driving—la conduite—also means behavior. Misbehavior is frowned upon, so you should always attempt to shift the blame to others.

At some point mistakes were made in Paris, resulting in several large roundabouts pocking the city—rather like carrousels left over from circuses that decamped long ago. If you enter one of these automotive merry-go-rounds, you may be stuck for a while. Enjoy it while you can, and each time you wheel past the major edifice adorning the square, identify it to your passengers as a different landmark—this time the Arc de Triomphe, next Notre-Dame, and then the Eiffel Tower. Whatever. Don’t worry: they will believe you. It’s dark out.

There are now many bicyclists in Paris. They have not been to auto-écoles, and they thus engage in stunts incompatible with the rules of the road. Usually they have no lights. Often they steer blithely into oncoming traffic. Don’t worry unduly. Bicyclists are expendable. There are more where they came from. (Note: you didn’t hear that from me.)

In the States you may be used to growing old while waiting for people to take turns at four-way stops. The good news is that Paris has no four-way stops. The bad news is that you’re expected to know who has the right of way. (Clue: it’s usually the other guy.)

Don’t wear a burka while you drive.

Maybe, just this once, accept the extra insurance at the rental agency.

When crossing the Seine on a narrow bridge, resist the temptation to wrench the steering wheel to the right.

When the police stop you, speak to them in English, or at least inflect your French with a strong accent—preferably British, especially if you’ve been driving in the wrong lane. Under no circumstances admit that you have lived in the city for years.

Note that the police can’t hold you for more than twenty-four hours unless they press charges.

Note that the previous observation is not entirely correct,  and your stay can be extended to forty-eight hours. Make yourself comfortable.

Whatever happens, by the time you get home from the police, your visitors will almost certainly have left town. Tell yourself that this was your goal from the start. And even if they have not left a thank-you card, rest assured that you’ve provided them with the evening of a lifetime. 

Looking for more information about driving? Check out our earlier posts on car rentals and driving in Paris.

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