Life on La Lune: How to drive like the French
Do you want to integrate into the French society? Learn how to drive like one of them.
If you want to be truly integrated into French society, you must learn to drive as the French do. Here is a crash (excuse the pun) course in the rules of the road to help you get started.
Lesson 1 – before you move off
No self-respecting French person drives anywhere without the obligatory accessories – a mobile phone clamped firmly to the ear and a lighted cigarette.
Lesson 2 – etiquette of the road
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 lesson 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.
*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.
Lesson 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.
Lesson 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.
Lesson 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.
Lesson 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 (the one near us is regularly bound up with gaffer tape or painted black by some civic-minded local). In particular, you should ignore the 50-kph speed limit in towns and villages. Old ladies and domestic pets mowed down in your wake should be more careful.
Lesson 7 – use of the horn
The horn is there to admonish other road users as frequently as possible. Its use is obligatory when the car in front hesitates for more than two seconds at a green traffic light, when the person in front of you at the péage fumbles their change and when another driver holds you up while they reverse into a parking space.
Lesson 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.
Lesson 9 – greeting your 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 queuing up behind.
Lesson 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 you study this course assiduously, you cannot fail to be accepted as a true French driver.
This is all tongue in cheek, of course, 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. I am not suggesting that the British are any better.
French people drive far more carefully than they used to – partly because the risk of being caught has greatly increased and also because of a welcome recognition of the dangers of drink-driving. My husband says that when he lived in Limoges in the 1970s, 16,000 people were killed on the roads every year in France. Now the figure has reduced to slightly more than a quarter of that. May it continue to decline.
Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer living in southwest France since 1997. As well as writing research reports and magazine articles she also blogs about France, aiming to show life there as it is, warts and all.
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