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.