Yes, I know you’re an expert driver, with many years of driving experience. But each country has its own set of rules and driving in France has its own laws and specificities. And more distinctly, the French have their own driving culture. This isn’t Germany with its “no speed limits”, but there are definitely a few things in France that are a bit “different”.
So brush on your French Rules of the Road, and let’s go through a few items before getting behind the wheel.
Table of Contents
1. Things required in the car
There’s a reason French bureaucracy is legendary, and driving in France is no different. Here is the French government-mandated list of items you are required to have in your car at all times:
- Reflective jacket within easy reach (i.e. not in the trunk)
- Warning triangle
- Emergency wheel and installation kit (recommended)
- Breathalyser/alcohol test (in case the police officer doesn’t have one on him!)
- Spare bulbs for the headlights and backlights
- In certain areas, snow chains in winter
2. The legal documents
As a driver, you need to carry the following documents:
- Full, valid driving license (international driving licenses are recognized but not necessary)
- Car insurance
- Car rental agreement
- Passport or other proof of ID
- Travel insurance documents.
3. Get to know your GPS
GPS systems and Google Maps were designed by North Americans for the U.S., where cities are built on-grid systems. The GPS is used to giving instructions like « stay on the right ». This is not so useful in France, and particularly in the Greater Paris Area where roads look like spaghetti with directions going every which way. More is more in France. My husband and I sometimes have more than one GPS on because roads are tricky with a lot of signage.
In addition, if your GPS is mispronouncing French words with a British accent, you are going to hard-pressed to figure out where you are supposed to go.
4. Do not miss an exit
In North America if you miss an exit, no problem, you can usually turn around 5 minutes later. French roads don’t have exits that often, and missing one exit could easily add an extra half hour to your trip.
I was once trying to go to a nearby mall (that I could have walked to), and instead ended up on the Pay toll autoroute to Rouen, Normandy. With the GPS saying things like “stay right” instead of “take the exit”, we ended up with a €20 joyride on the toll highway. Limit conversations in the car, and pay attention to the road.
5. Check if your rental car is automatic
If you don’t know how to drive shift, this one is important. Most French cars are stick-shift, so if you have just taken the cheapest car at the rental agency, there is a good chance that it is not automatic.
6. Do not rent/buy a big car
The Rental agency might “upgrade” you to a big car, but take my advice and turn it down. French villages and even Parisian streets are not built for SUVs. You will have a hard time maneuvering and finding parking for your giant gas-guzzler.
7. Check if the car is diesel
More than 50% of cars sold in France are diesel, so make sure you know what goes into your car. Gazole is diesel, so don’t make that mistake!
8. Check the gasoline at the gas station
The first time I went to the gas station I had to call my husband to ask what gas to put in the car. None of them were marked “gasoline”. Since my husband is not currently available for your phonecalls, please see picture below which indicates that SP95-10 is the normal gasoline that you are looking for.
9. Don’t wait till the last minute to buy gas
Compared to North America, where you can fill up your tank at almost every corner, gas stations in cities in France are rare. Even on the highway, you can sometimes go over 60km (40 miles) without seeing a gas station, and even then there might be a “fermature exceptionnelle” (special closure). This is common in France, so don’t wait till the last minute to get gas, unless you want to be pushing your car.
10. Check your Crit’air status
Major cities like Paris have implemented something known as Crit’air (fresh air stickers) which restrict certain polluting cars from entering the city on days when there are high smog levels. The sticker will be on the front windshield of your car, and if it is anything more than 2, you will have to stay tuned to the news to see if your car is restricted on certain days.
11. Check your speed limit
The general speed limit on a highway is 130km/hour (80 miles/hr), unless it is 110km/hour (68 miles/hr), unless it is raining, unless there is construction, etc. etc. Single lane roads can be anywhere from 80-90km (50-55miles/hr). In towns, speed limits can often vary on the same road from 30-70km/hr (18-45miles/hr).
I’m being a little vague because there has been some debate in recent years as to what should be the speed limit, with different government agencies wanting to different things. As it goes in France though, the French people protested, and the whole thing is up in the air.
With the differing protests, I’m not sure what speed limit they settled on, and the road signs have not all been updated. This is especially the case in rural areas. Follow the speed limits on your GPS and/or Waze as they should have the most up-to-date information.
12. Radars and Radar warning signs
There are automated radars all over French highways. But not to worry, actually there will be a radar sign warning you right before the actual radar (the result of a French protest against radars).
So as long as you watch the road, you should be alerted to the radar traps coming up on your route.
13. Toll roads are expensive
France has one of the fastest and best rail systems in the world, so if you are debating between driving and taking the train, you should probably know that tolls are very high in France. Most of the major highways are toll roads. As a driver, you collect the ticket when you enter the highway, and pay a fare at the end based on distance covered.
Taking the train might be the more leisurely/stress-free option, not to mention how much better it is for the environment. (Although, I guess if you were taking the train, you wouldn’t be reading this list!)
14. Gas is expensive
Along with tolls being expensive, gas is also more expensive than in other countries. On average, gasoline in France is more than twice the price of what it is in the U.S. Good thing France is a much smaller country and there’s not that much distance to cover.
15. No right turns on a red light
Now I know in the U.S., certain states allow right turns on a red light while certain states don’t. In Ontario Canada, where I’m from, right turns are allowed on a red light. In France, they are not, so forewarned.
16. Learn how to drive on a roundabout
France is the World Champion of Roundabouts, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro, with over 50,000 in the country. You may have heard of our most famous one, the Arc De Triomphe on the Champs Elysées.
Generally, you should approach slowly and stay in the inside lane, until you are ready to exit. Roundabouts in France can have as many as 5-10 different exits so get ready to count when your GPS says “take the 7th exit”.
17. Stick to the right
Yes, you may think you know this one, but this is quite different from driving in North America. In North America, we are generally taught defensive driving, where you minimize changing lanes as that is when most accidents are likely to occur. In France, the priority, however, is to move back to the right as soon as possible, and there are fines for not staying on the right, unless passing.
The countereffect though is that this means cars in France will ping-pong across the highway like hyperactive bunnies, even if there is no one behind them and there is no urgency to change lanes. The general rule of “two car lengths away” is more often than not, not respected. Drivers may aggressively come quite close behind you, especially if you are driving on the left, to get you to move. (This perhaps is the inspiration for the French cartoon Lapins Crétins?)
18. All parking spots are not created equal
French engineers are very creative, and they sometimes push the limits on what can be called a “parking spot”. Personally, we have a normal parking spot, but there are certain ones in our building that are so small they definitely would not fit any car other than a Volkswagon Golf. Do not be surprised, and again, do not go for the largest car that you can find.
19. The French kiss
Tiny parking spots lead to what I personally call the “French Kiss”. It is not uncommon to see someone parking and trying to squeeze his car in by giving a little tap to the car in front or behind. If you want to avoid this, park far away in an uncrowded area.
20. Follow the sign “Toutes directions”
If you are not sure where to go, follow the sign “Toutes directions” which means “all directions”. It will generally lead you to a bigger road that will have more signage.
21. Right of way
Yes, I know, even in North America we have the “right of way”. The French “Right of way” is exceptional in that even a smaller country road on the right may have priority unless they have a specific sign saying otherwise.
So even if a single lane road is coming up on a two-lane road, the driver of the two-lane road may legally be obliged to slow down and/or stop to cede the right of way to the other driver.
22. Stay on the right to turn left
Often times, but not always, there is a ramp leading to a left turn on the road, but wait for it: the ramp is on the right side of the road. If you stay in the left lane in order to eventually turn left, you will probably see the sign too late, and won’t have time to switch lanes.
There is no solution to this, just go straight, don’t pass “Go”, and add another 15 minutes to your trip.
23. The auto stops
Plan your stops in advance because the aires are only around every 20 km (13 miles) along. Some only offer just a picnic area and outdoor concrete toilet facilities. More extensive services are provided at aires de services which are more comfortable, proving gas, better bathroom facilities, and restaurant services.
24. Avoid driving if it is snowing
If you are here in winter and there is the possibility of snow, prepare yourself: French people don’t know how to drive in snow. Or rather, French authorities don’t know how to deal with snow, even if it is just a couple of centimeters. (This is my professional opinion as a Canadian.)
More often than not, traffic comes to a standstill, especially on highways. Every winter storm, at least one highway in the suburbs of Paris becomes completely blocked and there are newspaper stories galore of people spending the night in the car.
If you can read French, here is an article from France Info where 900 cars were blocked overnight on the N118 highway in March 2019 (not the first time this has happened). This highway is not in the middle of nowhere, it is less than 50km away from the Tour Eiffel.
So there you have it, the not-so-Simple guide to driving in France! I may add more items to this list as I think of them, so be sure to bookmark this page. A bientôt!
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