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Getting Around Living in Paris

Driving Me Crazy, Part 2

Rudely denied the right to continue driving in France with my US license, the quest for a French driving license continues…

The Job’s Not Over ‘Till the Paperwork is Done

“Three months?” I ask, unbelieving I’d heard right. My instructor, Guy, smiles. “Minimum,” he adds. Not only am I subjected to the rude awakening of driving school and two tests AGAIN in my short life, I won’t be able to take the final exam behind the wheel before the winter holidays. This is how it works in France, where it’s all State run: go to a driving school and submit ten forms of ID and a large fee (covering the lessons for the written, on the road lessons, and the cost of the exams), then the forms get sent to the Prefecture de Police, who stamp a date for the written exam no earlier than one month away. If you pass the written, you wait a minimum of two weeks to take the behind-the-wheel test. Sounds okay, and I don’t have to take a minimum of 21 hours on-the-road practice because I’ve already got a US license (only time it’s come in handy). But, there’s a delay with the paperwork of three weeks before I get my first exam, and then after I pass the written, Guy tells me that there’s a backlog of final exams. He explains it like this: “There are only four examiners. One is half-time, one is quarter-time, and another has been out sick since August.” So as of today, I still can’t drive (although I’m paying insurance for the car wasting away in the garage). But I’ve already learned a lot! Here’s the dirt.

Americans Are From Mars, the French Are From Venus

We may all drive on the same side of the road and stop at STOP signs, but that’s about where the similarity ends. The written test here is hard. Very hard. Only half of the 60 or so test-takers passed in my group. The young student from my school failed a third time, always by one question (there are 40 multiple choice, usually with one to three correct answers on each question, and you must get 35 completely correct to pass). The reason for this is the simple fact that the French love signs. There are more signs in France than in the US, by far, and some are so absurdly rationalized, that it’s no wonder most people fail the exam. A classic: the ‘yield’ sign with a bicyclist on it facing right means that bicycles will be crossing from the left side of the road, but a ‘yield’ sign with a bicyclist facing left means that bicycles will be crossing from the left or the right. Enough to drive us all mad. On many streets in France, there are no speed limit signs. This doesn’t mean ‘speed as you like’, although most do (more on that later). The type of road denotes the speed unless otherwise marked (in kilometers, by the way). So in city limits, the limit is 50kph, on national roads it’s 90kph, unless there is a median strip separating the two directions of traffic, then it’s 110kph. On highways it’s 130kph. On all of these, if it’s raining or you’ve had your license less than two years, subtract 10kph from the limit.

Round And Round

Those pesky roundabouts catch everyone’s attention because they seem so foreign to most Americans. No, you don’t have to stop, but you do have to give priority to those already in there. This is actually a point where a lot of French get confused, because up until Mitterrand’s presidency, the rules for roundabouts were the same as the rest of the roads: Priority to the Right. This means that in any unmarked intersection, even if it’s a small side road and a large main road, those coming off the right don’t have to stop. It’s hard to get used to that for American drivers, and likewise the French still go charging onto roundabouts like they do from side roads, so you’ll see the signs put up – a ‘yield’ sign with a black X in the center – meaning ‘You Do Not Have Priority’. Sometimes you’ll see these planted around to remind people. Other times you’ll see a yellow diamond sign with no words, usually on main roads, and it means you DO have the priority on this road at all times. Very complex, you see? And I think of all the times Mr. Hall and I rode around in rental cars without a clue as to what these signs meant.

The Apple of Knowledge

Of course, now I won’t shut up about my new smarts, pointing out to my husband all of the illegal things he and other drivers do on the roads (well, I don’t have to point out the cars that regularly do a ‘California Stop’ at red lights and then zoom through). I used to think the French were crazy drivers, now I just think they’re all bad drivers. It’s almost seen as a sign of virility around here to get away with as much as possible. And there are consequences. France has an appalling record compared to the other European countries (even Italy). The death rate is abnormally high, usually caused my things as stupid as someone thinking they can do a U-Turn on a highway entrance ramp because he went the wrong way. It had been awhile since I took driving classes in the US, but I recall there was a real emphasis on the consequences of speeding, drunk driving, not wearing seatbelts, etc. In my French courses, they made us simply memorize how many ‘points’ we lose on our license for each offense, the maximum alcohol intake you can get away with, and the three-day deadline for reporting accidents where someone was injured. Not much in terms of teaching respect for the rules and other drivers.

Beware the Scooter Boys

Just as an aside, you have to be 18 to drive in France, but a small moped under 80cc’s doesn’t require a license or even plates, so you see tons of unlicensed scooters flying around with 15y.o. hooligans on them, weaving in and out of traffic and on the sidewalks. Very easy to accidentally squash one of these under your car. Another alarming trend, more prevalent along the Riviera than Paris (so far), are scooter thieves. I’m not taliking about people who steal scooters (although apparently they go like hotcakes), but pairs of thieves on scooters who pull up to cars stopped in traffic, open the door, and grab purses, brief cases, luggage, etc. and zoom off before the driver has even figured out what’s going on. Tourists are a big target, because they usually have passports and large sums of cash on them. Beware. Lock your doors. Wear a seatbelt. Look out for the streets on the right. Try getting an explanation of the road signs before driving your rental car in France for the first time. And don’t say you haven’t been warned!

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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