Read an American expat’s guide to driving in France so you can avoid getting lost and running out of fuel in the country.
All hail the intrepid traveller! You have managed to take possession of your rental car after various machinations, and, map in hand, you are ready to make your first foray into French driving.
When I came to France alone in February 2006 to scout properties before we bought La Maillerie in the smaller-than-tiny village of Busserolles, I had a nifty little Citroen C3, a few maps, a thimbleful of French under my belt and a fool’s confidence to accompany me for two weeks.
Fortunately, that was all I needed.
Left, right and centre
The first thing you need to understand is the way the French give and expect to receive directions. Instead of statements like “Take the D90 north to the D675 and turn right”, you will be given your directions relative to the largest town you are headed towards.
Expect directions like “Take the Piegut road, direction Nontron, then follow signs” (the French think non-French can read their signs.) What this really means is that when you look at your map, it’s a really good idea to pinpoint your destination, but also look at the names of the two towns to the north, south, east and west of the one you’re aiming at.
Also look for the very largest town in each direction. Why? Because the names of small towns will disappear from signs, and only the largest town’s name will remain.
You should also know many different routes will take you to the same place, just in a different way. One route may be fairly direct, while the other might take you over the river, through the woods and to the edge of your wits.
Let’s get lost
If you do find yourself lost (or think you are), and are feeling frisky enough to take your translation book into the nearest populated place, don’t work too hard on making your pronunciation perfect.
In fact, it would behoove you to make yourself just barely comprehensible. If you throw down a great French accent, it will be assumed that you speak the language, and the desperately-needed information will arrive at a speed that will spin your head around.
“Lentement, s’il vous plait (Slowly, please)” will be the most important phrase to know. Big smile. Display map if you have it. Listen carefully, and hope for the best.
“Tout droit” does not mean “always turn right”, it means “continue straight”
Do not be afraid to ask for directions in different places. The most important thing is to arrive, isn’t it?
Round and round we go
If you are from the western US and have never driven in countries such as France or Italy, your relief at the fact that they drive on the right-hand side of the road may fade quickly the moment you arrive at your first roundabout, called a rond point, which will sound like “rompe”, if you don’t speak much French.
Don’t be intimidated, though, as they are probably your best friends. Distinct from the grid-like traffic patterns that are customary in the States, the larger intersections in France (and Italy, and others) are circular. So if you don’t recognise the place names and directions immediately, you can just go around the circle a few times. Just remember to stay near the outer edge to make the transition easier.
Someone from the inner part of the circle may cut across you to make it to the outside. Smile, wave and let them go. You don’t hear a lot of horns honking in France, except in the big cities where impatience is closer to the surface than in small towns.
Signs, signs, everywhere
At regular (or irregular) four-way crossings, you may be met with a bewildering array of town names with arrows. This is where your notes of the villages before and beyond your destination will come in handy. While you may have seen signs all along the way for your chosen spot, you can pretty much count on its name disappearing from sight at the most crucial juncture.
Another little idiosyncrasy of French signage is that old road signs were posted from the city centre out. So when you arrive at a crossing and nothing seems to make sense, try looking back over your shoulder. The sign you need may be at a crazy angle. It may also look like it’s pointing slightly right or left, when it may be telling you to go straight. Check the orientation of the other signs if you are feeling a little shaky.
Cédez le passage means yield, basically. You will see a lot of these. Pay attention, especially in roundabouts. If there is no sign telling you how to act, assume the driver coming from your right takes precedence, and do not expect them to stop, slow down or otherwise acknowledge your existence.
Know your rights
On small back roads, where the joy of driving will be singing in your veins, my hottest tip is stay to the right. Many of these roads are barely large enough for two-way traffic, and the locals who know the roads can come bucketing around blind corners at a cardiac arrest pace. Or a large truck could be coming, or a tractor, or some other crazy tourist who can’t deal with the curves. You have to be ready to drop two wheels onto the shoulder at any time.
There may be also be times on these little routes that you reach a T or a Y some more nebulous arrangement that looks like you should change direction, but there is no sign. When in doubt go to the right. I don’t think I have ever gone wrong when I have flipped that particular coin.
And for drivers who are used to driving in countries which allow right turns on red lights, hold your horses. Unless you see a green or yellow right turn arrow, don’t be swinging that right. If you get busted by the cops, and you are a tourist, be prepared to pay your fine on the spot – in cash.
If you are on a major freeway type thing (generally the A routes such as the A20), you may come across all-night gas stations with attendants. In that case, feel free to break out your American credit card.
But if you are cruising smaller roads in the evening and realise you need fuel, your money may be no good there. Because unless your credit card has a “smart chip”, it will not work on those “pay before you pump” stations. No attendant, no fuel.
I once had to wait at a gas station in the middle of nowhere at 11pm until a fellow driver pulled up to fill up his tank. I gave him euros in exchange for using his credit on his “smart chip” to get diesel.
The long and winding roads
I love driving in this country, even in Paris. Put me on a back road any day of the week. The back roads can take longer, but there are so many little pockets of beauty concealed from the main highways that it is almost as though you are driving in a parallel country. The twists and turns, the rises and falls, the sweet straight-aways are enough to leave you laughing out loud if you like driving as much as I do. Don’t let the unfamiliar names and incredible disappearing signage discourage you. Know the name of the town you’re headed to and the biggest town in the same direction. All roads lead everywhere.