Things about France that surprised me: French driving

After falling to a historic low in 2018, road deaths in France started to increase dramatically at the start of this year. The French government blamed January’s steep rise fairly and squarely on the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement during which some 60% of speed cameras on France’s roads were vandalised or put out of action leading to worsening driving habits.
More worryingly for cyclists, the government’s safety body Securite Routiere added:

Cyclist mortality is the highest recorded for the last 10 years.

In 2018, 3,259 people died on French roads, down from 3,448 in 2017 and an historic record low which the French government said vindicated the controversial lowering of the speed limit on secondary roads to 80kmh from 90kmh though the speed limit change as well as speed cameras in general proved one of the main sources of anger among the gilets jaunes.

These figures might surprise you but not, if like me, you drive (and cycle) in France. Here’s my slightly tongue-in-cheek advice about driving here. I always tell people to “Expect the unexpected” on French roads.

1 – getting going

No self-respecting French person drives anywhere without the obligatory accessories – a mobile phone clamped firmly to the ear and a lit cigarette. They’ll then totally skip the  whole pesky “mirror, signal, maneouvre” going straight to manoeuvre without glancing in any of their vehicle’s mirrors. They’ll often have “lost” one wing mirror driving too closely to something and the in-car mirror is, of course, only for putting on one’s lipstick.

2 – road etiquette

You should always drive within two metres of the vehicle in front, especially if you are driving a white van. This normally intimidates the other driver into going faster. If this fails, execute the overtaking manoeuvre (see 5 below). If another vehicle flashes you in anger, hold up the middle finger of your right hand in response. Always warn oncoming drivers of a police radar trap by flashing (strictly illegal). Never fail to exercise your priorité à droite* rights, even in front of foreign-registered cars whose drivers probably don’t understand. Also, never stop to let anyone out of a side road.

Always choose the lane with the least number of vehicles. If that’s the outside lane and you’re turning right at the roundabout, no matter, just sail with impunity across the bows of the cars in the middle and inside lanes as though you have some God-given right.

*A rule which gives priority to drivers emerging into a major road from a minor one without a ‘stop’ or ‘give way’ sign. In that case, oncoming traffic on the major road is obliged to give way.

3 – use of indicators

Indicators are an unnecessary luxury and are simply part of some crackpot government scheme designed to constrain la liberté. You are particularly advised against using indicators at roundabouts, when executing a u-turn and when pulling in to the side to park. It is up to your fellow-drivers to be vigilant. Don’t be fooled if someone is indicating, they probably just knocked the indicator when reaching for the cigarette lighter.

4 – motorway driving

On a three-lane motorway, always drive in the middle lane, even if the right-hand lane is clear of traffic. Disdainfully ignore traffic that starts overtaking you on the inside. When approaching the péage, waver between lanes without indicating until you have determined which queue you wish to join. If you miss your turn off, don’t worry. You can pull over onto the hard shoulder and reverse back!

5 – overtaking

The ideal conditions for overtaking are at a blind corner with a solid white line in the middle of the road, preferably going uphill. To execute this manoeuvre, drive as closely as possible to the vehicle in front, pull out (without indicating, naturally) then pull in sharply in front of it – a queue de poisson (fish tail) – to avoid the oncoming juggernaut.

6 – speed limits

The speed limits are there to be broken, except where there is one of those irritating automatic radar machines that have sprung up like mushrooms). In particular, you should ignore the 50kph speed limit in towns and villages. Old ladies, small kiddies and domestic pets mown down in your wake frankly should be more careful.

7 – use of the horn

The horn is there to admonish other road users as frequently and as noisily as possible. Its use is obligatory when the vehicle in front hesitates for more than a nano-second at a green traffic light, when the person in front of you at the péage fumbles their change, when the combination of a cyclist and traffic calming measures means you cannot overtake said cyclist, cyclists riding more than one abrest and when another driver holds you up as they reverse into a parking space. It should also be used liberally when someone has casually parked thereby blocking your entrance or exit.

8 – pedestrian crossings

Never stop for a pedestrian on a crossing unless they are at least halfway across. More than three people constitutes a case of force majeure, in which case you are regretfully obliged to give way. Once they are across, gun the accelerator and speed off with squealing tires to indicate your frustration.

9 – greeting friends

When you see a friend walking along the street, greet them with a long burst of the horn. You should stop if possible in the middle of the road and carry on a conversation with them regardless of the traffic building up behind.

10 – parking

When the parking space in a busy street is not long enough, simply drive onto the pavement, preferably obstructing it for pedestrians. At the supermarket, always park across two spaces, especially when it is busy. If that’s not possible, park anywhere there’s a space, even if it then prevents someone else from exiting or entering (see 7 above). Feel free to park in cycle lanes, on roundabouts and frankly wherever you can abandon the vehicle. The key word here being “abandon.”

The French hate paying for parking and will do anything they can to avoid paying, though, to be fair, they never use car parking spaces allocated to the handicapped, but that may have something to do with the very large fine! Additionally, they prefer to park right outside their destination and will hover endlessly waiting for a space to become free. When it does, they’re like heat-seeking missiles. Never attempt to park in a space that someone else has bagged unless you want to experience some French road rage!

I could never understand why the car park of my local supermarket was always full while the shop was empty until I realised, it’s free parking. People park there to visit someone at the nearby hospital ,which only has paid parking, to catch a train from the nearby station (again only paid parking) or when shopping at the nearby mall (free car parking for 3 hours only!).

If you follow these 10 rules assiduously, you cannot fail to be accepted as a true French driver.

As I said above, this is all tongue in cheek, although in some cases I am only stretching the truth a little bit – the use of indicators is a case in point. Apologies to the many French drivers who don’t do any of the above. Please note: I’m not suggesting that the British, or indeed any other nation, are any better.


57 Comments on “Things about France that surprised me: French driving

  1. Well as a French person I tend to disagree with most above. I have beend driving for upteen years here and love the road I call myself a road warrior. However, do not see much difference here to other driving anywhere in the world (have drive as resident or citizen in 6 countries). To be fair point by point 1) hardly seen any but as anywhere they are always some who do not a cliché it just happens; 2) yes we do drive closely maybe has to be from the grand prix formula one racing lol!! as the light flashing it is done anywhere, the law order was call many names in different countries, here is the flic; 3) yes turning lights is a problem not often done is a guessing game! 4) this I have done sparingly but always will have the other drivers flash their lights or horn in disapproval! 5) not seen it never done it, -6) speed limits yes very slow I go through a whole town the speed is 30 kph that is like 18 mph impossible for a motor vehicule to run at that speed! 7 ) blatant infraction yes use the horn in daytime not nighttime there use the flashing light but I hardly use it because do not care lol! 8) in my experience we do stop just by seen someone trying to pass of course in Paris or other big cities is different but is definitevely not a French thing. 9) not seen it or done either. If I see a friend I wave my hand only. 10) not done , the little spaces we have we try to squeeze in and sometimes we bump the car in front to give us elbow room! but is not rampant.
    There you go just my five cent response from a lover of the road and member of 40 millions automobilistes!!! Salut

    Liked by 3 people

    • I wouldn’t expect any French person to agree with me, it’s my viewpoint. However, if you’ve read any of my posts where I’ve almost been killed/run off the road while cycling, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Plus, statistics back me up and you agree with some of my observations. I rest my case!


      • I was expressing my point of view always different from visitors and or expats. We will never agree on this one just two opinions. Cyclist caused accidents too and they are tougher laws about them even in Paris. We will end up on horses eventually lol!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think a key word is “expect the unexpected” when talking about traffic in France. Every nation seems to have their own typical behaviour. Italians will always try to cut in, but if you don’t let them, they will hold back. Danes have a habit to block the lane meant for overtaking, especially if they are at speed limit, as nobody is supposed to drive faster then them anyway, right? German drivers I find very aggressive, and there isn’t any patience at all with people who for example are searching for something. On Belgian motorways we made the experience on motorways across the country that people shift lane suddenly, blinking at the same time and very close in front of you, so that you have to break. That experience was enough for me to not ever want to drive on Belgian motorways.
    But France: haha, we drove countless rounds around the Arc de Triomphe the first time we were in Paris, because we did not know how to get out, there were never any openings. My cousin found out a trick, and that was to press drivers with new and shiny cars without any dents in them, they were the only ones who held back when pressed. The worst thing that happened in France was a late evening in Paris on a four lane (two in each direction) boulevard with a kind of wall in the middle and in between some turnoff possibilities. All of a sudden a car came against us on our side of the wall. The driver obviously had missed a turnoff and just turned around and drove against the traffic. At that particular moment there were only the two of us, but still … there were side streets …

    Liked by 3 people

  3. What an article, dear ! Actually, same status quo, all over the world, dear. I think Switzerland is a wonderful exception. I can tell.

    It is, almost, always, the rider, and not the machine, dear. They have only two pedals, in US, dear ! And they drive like crazy, LOL !… They made roads for the bicyclists in Manhattan, and GOSH !!!… watch out !!!… LOL …

    It’s, almost, always, the rider, not the machine. I wish you are doing well, Sheree. Take care, and enjoy !

    Liked by 4 people

  4. seems the same in france as it is here in the usa!
    years ago i drove in new zealand while on a 2 week vacation. it was a most pleasant time except for driving on the “wrong” side of the road and being a bit confused when coming to a traffic circle ( i would wait for an other car going in the same direction and then follow it.)

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Interesting post, from my point of view as both a cyclist and a driver in the US and Mexico, I have noticed a lot more distracted and angry drivers. I have to pay a lot more attention to both activities. I read the above comments and as was said, it seems to be a global phenomena so I hope all can be safe while riding and driving.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Loved your comment about the White Vans. Spooky vehicles from outer space! Especially at the start of lunchtime and the end of the working day, they know no speed limit.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Funny post, I enjoyed it. To be fair I have always enjoyed driving in France but have never tackled the Arc de Triomphe and never would dare. Driving in Italy however is something that I have found really dangerous and will never do it again!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. First I thought drivers in Buenos Aires were insane — then I visited Rome! —- & then!!! I visited Tehran!!!! All 3 made me grateful to get back home to drivers in Los Angeles lolol

    Liked by 2 people

  9. After we returned from France, I received a ticket for speeding in the mail. Seriously, it was for 28kmph in a 25kmp zone! What the?!!


  10. What an incredible post,every nation has a bunch of mad drivers, and this is why i will say,the driver on the highway is safe not when he/she reads the signs,but when he/she obeys them, I’m glad you’re safe from that hit and run stay safe.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Great post Sheree! Some of those things are true here also, like talking to friends holding up traffic, I just can’t understand that one. Parking on sidewalks is quite normal here and delivery trucks park anywhere they want, people turn from the wrong lanes without signalling. Great comedy Sheree!😂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ah! Memories of our venture into the roads of Paris. My knuckles white as they clutched the dashboard while my husband drove. I remember counting the number of cars that have dings (damage) in them and hoping that we could avoid such a date with our leased car. On both visits to France, we did return our leased cars unscathed. Phew!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. HaHa excellent. Can really relate to these! You missed the sub-point about overtaking – on no account let yourself be overtaken! It is a sign of weakness. If another car, even one obviously more powerful, dares to impinge upon your symblolic lead position – speed up at once 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Enjoyed this although I do feel drivers in France have calmed down since the 80s and early 90s when I lived over there and drove a lot. I used to love racing round Paris, tackling the Arc de Triomphe for fun and nudging the car in front and behind to get parked. I used to have to take a deep breath and consciously change my driving style when I drove off the ferry to visit family back in England. Good times.


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