On first arriving in France — driving
Germans in France
Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago,
You land driving in France from the ferry or train. You are very likely to be on motorways for a good while as your first experience. Prepare! Think ahead. Food is probably better in the supermarkets than anything you bring with you.
Depending when you land, if you do not like giving money away to shysters, then have enough fuel to allow you to reach where you intend to first shop. The Channel ports all have supermarkets, but the northern retail centres [centres commerciaux] are usually somewhat seedy: OK for that quick dash across for the duty free, alright for a stop if you can afford the time and do not mind the hassle. Or you can plan ahead, carrying enough fuel to arrive at your first option further down the motorway, at a supermarket just outside a town next to the motorway. For road fuel prices in France.
So to finding that vital, elusive supermarket stocked with cheaper fuel and decent food. You need to know the names of several of the main chains: Carrefour, LeClerc, Geant or Casino, Auchan, Super U, Intermarché, Champion; then look for their road signs.
Almost every substantial town has a ring road, or rocade, often despoiled by vast human beehives for the poorer classes [habitations à loyer modéré or HLMs - modest rent housing], but enlivened with hoardings and large retail complexes There, the various huge stores live often alongside cafés, do-it-yourself [bricolage], garden centres [jardinier], many smaller shops and, of course, the cut-price service station.
The French idea of signposting is rather slapdash and idiosyncratic, 5mn gauche [5 minutes left] or droit [right]. Well, it sort of depends on your speed, doesn’t it, and do they mean on this road or turn right? Expect some navigational messing around ’til you locate the gold mine, not to mention ever-impatient drivers as you dither.
Another favourite game is that when you want to turn left (across the oncoming traffic), you first have to turn right and then double back. Good hunting.
Eventually you find the supermarket, not much different from the English chains, except often a great deal larger [called hypermarchés or grand surfaces] and with much wider range of goodies. They are somewhat cheaper than Britain, especially when the pound is relatively strong. As of late 2014, it is the euro that is still overvalued.
Another wonder of French signposting concerns speed. The French government, helped by speed cameras, is now fining drivers left, right and everywhere to reduce fatal road accidents and, of course, make more money. Despite this, departmental and communal administrations prefer trying to instruct drivers to drive more slowly by signing. Here is one example seen on a road with a 110 kph speed limit.
As you can see, by the relative sizes of the discs, these signs are well within 100 metres of the exit from the main road. I’m surprised that they haven’t put a radar trap here.
Finding your way around towns often is not simple. You will often find yourself driving around in circles, trying to garner directions from them forriners who usually do not speak English too well. Of course, all the roads are the wrong way around, the road signs ain’t great, and the French cannot drive. No, they seriously cannot.
France has twice the area of the whole UK to spread out about the same population, but until recently they still managed to kill twice as many people. The moment my wheels touch France, I drop my speed a full 10-15 mph. No, I’m not kidding! The French are not just dangerous drivers, they are widely and generally incompetent drivers.
Large numbers of French towns are very cramped , which can make parking a major problem, especially if you do not know your way around. Most French people drive around in tiny, little prams and the parking spaces are widely designed to accommodate that sort of vehicle. If you are going to hire a car and expect to spend a lot of time in towns, you should consider the possibility of booking a small hire car.
By the way, the bizarre priority from the right rule still exists in France, a piece of gallic logic created supposedly to regulate who goes first when two or more roads meet. Thus, on all roads, except those which have the sign below, the driver emerging from the rightmost road at an intersection has the priority to go cross that intersection first, or even to turn onto another road. So, you may find a driver stops on a larger road to allow a car waiting on a side road (to the right of the main road) to turn onto the larger road.  Also, French cars will surprise you by jumping out of side roads and onto roundabouts ahead of you, on the basis of having priority from the right [priorité à droite].
You should learn to recognise this sign. On roads with this sign, drivers have priority to when going across intersections or turning onto another road. There is also a version with a line through it, meaning “this road does not have priority”, that is cars coming from the right onto this road have the priority.
You are no longer are
on a road with priority;
Roundabouts are generally exempt from this rule (cars should not just drive out onto the roundabout on the basis that they are to the right of cars already going round, although often they do) - note the cedez le passage/give way signs.
These mad priority signs, a positive clear sign telling you that idiots cannot jump out from your right and a negative sign (that has a cancelling line across) telling you that other drivers may jump out ahead of you, appear to have been developed by French bureaucrats attempting to correct the mess they had made previously with the generalised priority from the right rule.
Even today, I have had a driver stop on a main road to let me out of a side road, with the usual screeching of brakes as others try to stop behind him; while still a considerable percentage regularly jump out onto roundabouts against oncoming traffic. Doubtless, the powers cannot admit to making this incredible foul-up, so I return you to my original advice: drop your speed in France and recognise that the French just cannot drive - assuming you want to live.
Just to reassure you, it can become even more confusing. You may see one of these skull-and-crossbone signs with a number such as 400m in a block below the sign. It isn’t fully clear whether this means that the dreaded sign applies to the next four hundred metres, or it will apply in 400 metres time for who knows how long. Here, perhaps, you are expected to use your initiative. My response is to switch into double terrified mode and pray vigorously, without, of course, taking my eyes from drivers probably planning mayhem.
The priorité à droite rule, known in English as ‘the nearside rule’, was adopted by the Paris International Automobile Convention in 1926, then confirmed in Geneva in 1949 and in Vienna in 1968.
The priorité à droite rule started in Paris, instigated in 1910 by a Prefect of police, M. Lépine. Prior to this, the rules of priority on the road were very complicated, right of way being given according to the social rank of each passenger. Thus, it is said that passengers had to get off a coach to compare their titles and so decide who would pass first, according to the degrees of nobility!
The Italians are mad, but good, drivers; the French are generally just stupid. The Spanish live somewhere in between! There is none of the habitual lane discipline you see in Britain; straying across the white lines is optional. As you are driving on the ‘other side’ of the road, you may well have an instinct to go the other way around a roundabout, or pull across to the now unfashionable side of the road. If you are unaccustomed to driving a continental, left-hand drive vehicle, you will have a great deal more to cope with on top of that. So, if you wanna live, drop your speed and drive much more defensively than most sane people drive, even than in Britain.
Maybe this will start to change now, as even the French central government has had enough and is heavily cracking down on the situation. They are bringing in speed cameras , and are already becoming rather keen as it is realised how much money can be made from them. A whole raft of spot fines is now being enthusiastically applied for the most trivial and ‘creative’ infractions, for instance: 80€ for forgetting to turn off your fog lights. France is highly devolved, and so the local police get creative. A recent example was them lurking in a side road with a white line in a nearly deserted village and watching to make sure that the wheels of any emerging car completely stopped before proceeding - another nice little earner. If you are stopped, you’d better hope that the flic has his quota for the day, or is after bigger game.
Another ‘creative’ infraction worthy of fining and deduction of points is not using the direction indicator when turning or overtaking, even on an almost empty dual carriageway, and turning on or off a roundabout. Because of this, the French will neurotically leave their indicator going when driving on the outer lanes of a motorway to show that they are still OVERTAKING, and then indicate when they are going back to the inside lane.
Another French finickety neuroticism is only parking in spaces facing in the direction of travel. That will be another fifty euros, Monsieur - ker-ching. It is important to realise that people from abroad, or from another French department, are a delightful source of painless revenue, subsidising local taxes.
On sunny days, during the tourist season, it is common to see gendarmes gathering like flies around roundabouts - so much better and more profitable than being cooped up indoors.
While the motorways are generally of good standard, my impression is they have narrower lanes, but I’ve never checked. Once you are off the motorways, road quality varies considerably. France is much more decentralised than the UK, so every local commune [local authority] makes its own decisions. This means you can be tootling along a road with a good, well-kept surface and suddenly, without warning, the quality can drop dramatically as you move from one commune to another.
No, I’m not joking. Drop your speed at least 10 mph, and live longer.
In France, you pay through the nose for most motorways [autoroutes] (there are a few free motorways, around large cities and in Northern France) but there is one great joy and luxury that comes with this cost – an immense variety of aires. Read more about the autoroute network and the more interesting aires in motorway aires, introduction, also accessible from the drop-down menu at the top of this page.
Answer to a frequently asked question
As crude oil prices fell in 2014, fuel prices went down 17.7% for gazole (diesel in English) and 14.9% for 95 octane petrol. Is this the real reason why the French government has jacked up the tax on fuels again, rather than the official line of reducing air pollution?
80% of French vehicles use diesel fuel, and being more efficient than petrol-fuelled cars, they use 20% less fuel. This makes rather hollow the claims that diesel is more polluting. (Of course, there are still a small number of older, highly polluting diesel veheicles about, but most prefer to trade those in for more efficient, and so less polluting, newer models.)
From the 1st of January 2015, all vehicle fuel prices will increase by 2.4 centimes per litre (including TVA), an increase being termed as carbon tax. In addition, gazole will increase by a further 2 centimes per litre, making the total increase for gazole 4.4 centimes per litre. It is said that the additional portion of increased tax is to compensate for the collapse of the ecotax or environmental tax on trucks.
The ecotax was to be charged on heavy goods vehicles [poids lourds - PL], the original plan being to register the movements of heavy goods vehicles on non-motorway roads, then send bills charged a per-kilometre road tax.
173 costly gantries with cameras had been erected to record the HGVs' movements, by detecting an obligatory black box installed in the lorry's cab. However, riots, road blocks and lorry go-slow demos [escargots - snails] on major roads during 2014 has forced the tax to be abandoned. Now the government is wary of upsetting commercial drivers further by targeting taxes solely at them.
The government had been in a legal battle with the gantry constructors over cancelling their contract. This specified the constructors were to receive a portion of the revenue to be generated in payment for footing the construction bill. The conclusion of this battle is that the French government will be paying out 839 million € in all, 580-590 million € by February 2015, then 30 million € annually for 10 years. This agreement includes paying the salary for a year of the 220 white-collar employees made redundant, many of whom hade taken out mortgages on the basis of an excellent, government-funded salary. However, this may not be the end of the story as far as the company concerned, Ecomouv, says their receipts would have been more like 2 billion € over 10 years.
The ecology minister, Ségolène Royal (n° 3 in the government and ex-long term partner of unpopular President François Hollande) has proposed that these unsightly gantries now be used by the gendarmeries and customs (at further cost), rather than be dismantled at a suggested cost of between 7 to 13 million euro.
Also see pre-route planning with GoogleMaps.
Use a large road atlas, such as the one published by Michelin, for your preliminary trip planning. Once you have determined the general route, then use on-line planners which can give detailed information on distances, toll and fuel costs, and the location of speed cameras.
For more local maps, use Institut Geographique National (IGN) Blue Series maps. IGN is the French equivalent of the Ordinance Survey in the United Kingdom. Blue Series maps are 1:25,000 or 1 cm to 250 metres. The maps can be bought in a local Presse/newspaper shop or supermarket. However, this is a little haphazard, especially for the high-scale versions, as these places usually only hold maps local to them.
Mappy is an excellent, if slightly clumsy, on-line road planner. It also gives you the option of checking your toll costs for using motorways.
Map24 is another online route-planning site, with several Java-powered interactive facilities. Although in French for the map of France, Map24 is mostly intuitive to use and can even be fun. It is possible to look at the map related to your chosen itinerary in various degrees of three dimensions [VUE 3-D], as if low-flying over the land. The amount of zoom can (almost too) easily be changed [ZOOM]; while when at least one intermediate way-point is specified, you can select which part of the journey to study [NAVIGATION].
Remember to prepare your car to be both legal and safe in France.
During 2006, the frequent contradictory, badly placed road signs have even come to the notice of the French TV news and the government. Now it is official, you can expect to see consecutively speed signs of 70kph, 90kph, 50kph within a few hundred metres/yards of each other.
In contrast, French speed cameras are well forewarned
Also, various motorist groups do provide them, usually by region. Here is one such fixed radar/camera web site, which is being kept up to date. [For other similar pages, try searching on “radar routes france carte”]
However, although the warning sign is prominent, the camera that follows is often placed discretely - under a bridge, behind a road barrier, near a roadside planting. Also be aware that French fixed cameras are not set on high supports as in the UK, but are attached to a short support near the ground. There is no reason in France to receive a speeding ticket from a fixed camera, the signs like that photographed above are very prominent and usually several hundred yards before the camera - see a sign and make damn sure your speed is comfortably below the local speed limit. You can even take pleasure in watching the cars rushing past who are then flashed by the camera.
As well as the 1,000 fixed cameras on French roads, installed since October 2003, there are also many mobile cameras used by gendarmes. These may be set up at the roadside, or looking out from the back of a police estate car. These cameras should also be signed by a smaller, mobile warning sign. Remember les flics are out to meet targets and to make money. Therefore, they may ‘forget’ to put out the sign.
French speed cameras send two photos and accompanying data to a central processing point that, after assessment that the driver was speeding, automatically sends out the paperwork demanding the fine.
Fines are on sliding scales, depending how much above the local speed limit the car was going. Be aware also, that the fines are accompanied by a deduction of one or more points from the driving licence, again on a sliding scale.
If you receive such a demand, it has to be paid first (with the amount doubling if there is delay) and any dispute can be made later.
However, as a foreign visitor, you may well escape paying a fine, unless you are caught by a roadside gendarme who demands an immediate fine, or unless your car is registered in another European Union country that has a bilateral agreement.
Euroland is gradually moving to reciprocal recognition and shared data record storage of car registration. The first countries that are moving towards such arrangements are Germany, Holland, Spain. This situation will be complete when the proposed European driving licence is in place.
April 2010: Permission has been given for a further 3,000 surveillance cameras to be installed in towns. The French police are using them to watch for ‘bad’ actions by drivers, in particular stopping or parking in illegal locations. As towns become more crowded with traffic and parking is often reduced to provide more pedestrianised areas, finding somewhere to stop is becoming more irksome. Note that fines can be 2000€ or more.
Where to stay
|on first arriving in France - driving||motorway aires, introduction|
|travelling by rail to and within France||Les Pyrénées, A64||Poey de Lascar, A64|
|aires on the A75 autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers||Pic
du Midi, A64
Mas d’Agenais, A62
|aires on the A89 autoroute from Bordeaux to Clermont-Ferrand and beyond||Pech
|aires on the busy A7 autoroute from Lyons to Marseille||Ayguesvives,
|aires on the motorway to Spain - the A9 autoroute||three aires on the canal du midi, A61||Lozay,
|aires on the autoroute of two seas - the A62||Carcassonne, A61||Les Bréguières, A8|
|A65 : the autoroute de Gascogne, from Langon to Pau|
|aires on the other autoroute of two seas - A64 and A61||the French Wild West, Bordeaux to the Spanish border - the N10 and A63|
|in Poitou-Charentes: motorway aires on the A83||aires on the A20 - the Occitane, from Brive to Montauban|
|in Poitou-Charentes - aires on the A837 motorway||in Poitou-Charentes - the A87 motorway and its aires|
|from Lyon to Switzerland and Italy - motorway aires on the A42 and A40|
© abelard, 2008,2007,2006,2005,2004 (05 april )
the address for this document is http://www.abelard.org/france/first-arrival.php