Driving in France

Pedestrian Crossings (Crosswalks) Beware!

In certain countries, notably Germany, pedestrians enjoy a privileged status when aiming to cross a road at a pedestrian crossing (crosswalk for the Americans). As soon as a driver spots a pedestrian near a pedestrian crossing, even while still on the pavement (sidewalk), the driver will slow down or stop to allow the pedestrian to cross safely. Not so in France! Until the 12 November 2010, the French Code de la Route said: (Article R415-11): "Tout conducteur est tenu de céder le passage aux piétons régulièrement engagés dans la traversée d'une chaussée" (any driver has to give right of way to pedestrians regularly engaged in the crossing of a road). That meant that once you had started crossing, cars had to slow down or stop, but it did not mean that cars had to slow down or stop if you were still on the pavement waiting to pass. 

This article was changed on the 12 November 2010 to say: "Tout conducteur est tenu de céder le passage, au besoin en s'arrêtant, au piéton s'engageant régulièrement dans la traversée d'une chaussée ou manifestant clairement l'intention de le faire" (any driver has to give right of way, if necessary by stopping, to pedestrians regularly engaged in the crossing of a road or clearly showing the intention to do it). This approaches German conditions, in theory at least.

But despite this step forward in legislation, it would be unwise to presume that French drivers will respect it. It will probably take a couple of generations before anyone notices this change. Don't expect French drivers to act like German drivers. It is a different culture. In France, the main rule is "me first". If you are the weak part, it is unwise to challenge this unwritten principle. Although polite French drivers exist, the term is close to being an oxymoron and mostly a concept of academic interest for the purpose of studying marginal behaviour of unusual persons.

A polite French driver will not stop for someone waiting to cross a pedestrian crossing, he will speed up so the pedestrian has to wait a microsecond less before he can pass after the car.

If there is no pedestrian crossing, you can forget all about any car stopping, even if you are waiting, holding the hand of a child, waiting to cross. Child or not, they don't give a damn. They think they would lose face by stopping.

For your own safety, don't trust that just because one driver stops, then drivers in the other lanes will stop too, whether driving in the same or the opposite direction. Even though it was not in France, I remember an incident from Luxembourg city that could have had deadly outcome. A one-way street had two lanes. I had stopped in the first lane to let pedestrians pass on a crossing. While pedestrians were crossing on front of my car, approaching the second lane, another car overtook me in the second lane without making any attempt to slow down. Two yards more and the pedestrians could have been mowed down.

Also for your own safety, don't trust that drivers will let you pass if they are turning while you are crossing at a green pedestrian light, even if they are obliged to let you pass. If you insist on your right of way, you may well end up in hospital or worse. This is particularly a problem in Paris.

For your own safety, just presume that French drivers will behave like a gorilla in an African jungle, unless you're certain they won't.


The French have a reputation for driving badly, although the rumours are exaggerated. That is not without reason. It goes without saying that you need to be particularly vigilant if you're new to French driving. A few drivers do not respect red lights, so you cannot trust that a green light means that passage will be free. Look right and left yourself. Better safe than sorry.

After the introduction of speed cameras on more and more roads, the number of accidents has fallen, and speed limits are more and more observed. An increasing number of fixed and mobile speed traps are being used. The fixed cameras used to be indicated in advance, but the warning signs are being taken down in 2011. The fixed cameras are programmed to apply a tolerance margin of 5 km/hour for speeds up to 100 km/h and 5% for speeds over 100 km/hour. For mobile cameras, the tolerance limit is double, 10 km/hour and 10% respectively. In any case, the tolerance margin is only applied to readings up to 20 km/h above the speed limit. For higher speeds, the reading is applied with no tolerance margin. 

Most cars show a slightly higher speed than what they are actually driving, often between 5% and 10%. A GPS will tell you the exact speed with a precision of 1%-2%, or much more precise than the speedometer. Driving a foreign registered car used to protect against automatic fines, but European countries are putting in place systems for recovering fines in other countries little by little, so don't count on that. It is a punishable offence to own or use a radar detection device or any other device that can warn against speed traps based on information rather than detection. It is not yet clear how the case of satellite navigation systems with downloaded lists of speed traps will be handled.

In addition to speed traps, traps are being installed at traffic lights to catch those who don't respect red lights. To prevent fines, it means taking the orange lights seriously and stopping as soon as you see an orange light if it can be done safely without emergency braking. The cameras are not activated for passing an orange light, but they can be activated even at low speed if you pass the stop line. The question that the authorities have not clarified is what to do if there is an emergency vehicle behind you, since a fine can be triggered automatically if you advance just one yard to let the emergency vehicle pass.

French junctions are littered with over-zealous STOP signs where other countries use YIELD signs. The difference is, as you would know, that you have to mark the stop during a couple of seconds when there is a STOP sign. The trap is that police have found out that spying on STOP signs is an easy way of making money, since most of the junctions don't require stopping completely for safe passage. Hence, many motorists just drive slowly past the STOP signs without stopping completely. To prevent annoying fines, one needs to STOP completely and sit and look around for a couple of seconds, whether it seems useful or not, whenever there is a STOP sign. The strange thing is that on dangerous junctions with fast traffic, one mostly finds YIELD signs only, whereas it is indeed required for safety to stop completely to avoid being torpedoed by a French driver going 120 kph (75 mph) on a national road where the limit is 90 kph (56 mph).

Beware that the French rules for priority at junctions may come as a surprise to you. They practise a system called priorité à droite, meaning yield for traffic coming from your right, on all other roads and streets than motorways and national roads. It means that unless priority signs or markings have been put up to determine who should yield for whom, it is the yield to the right rule that counts. However, the highway code also obliges the driver who presumes a right of way in such a situation to assure that it can be done safely. The problem with this rule is that in many places, local habits and confusion play in too, particularly if it seems natural that a larger road or street or a straight road should have right of way even if it is not legally the case. Another problem is that it is often difficult or impossible to determine if an opening to the right has status of road or street or if it is just a track, an exit from a car park, or a private exit, in which case those exiting do not have right of way. It can also be difficult to determine if a road or street to the right has a yield sign or not, as they are placed so they are visible for those driving on that road or street but not necessarily for those who need to know whether to yield or not, and markings on the street are often worn down so much that they are all but invisible. The locals tend to know where to yield or not, but even they can get confused. If you don't know a local area, whether a tourist or expat, you need to exercise caution if there is the slightest doubt. It's better to stop even if it wasn't necessary, even if some local impatient driver should start honking, than to cause an accident.

The general speed limits below are valid unless signs indicate otherwise. Speed limits indicated by specific signs are valid until cancelled either explicitly by a grey cancellation sign or implicitly by a junction or an intersection. However, if a specific speed limit is indicated on a square sign saying "zone", only a grey end of zone sign cancels the specific speed limit. Many councils have the bad habit of posting a specific speed limit sign of 45 km/h next to the town zone sign that means 50 km/h, perhaps intending to limit the speed to 45 km/h within the town zone. However, the specific speed limit sign is only valid until the next intersection, while the 50 km/h town zone limit is valid thereafter. The Ministry of Transport is trying to get rid of this confusing practice. 

As of 2012, it has become illegal to use a device that can identify the locations of speed cameras. This not only applies to the already illegal radar detectors that interactively detect the presence of a radar but also to satellite navigation devices (known as GPS in France) and all other types of device, even if the speed camera locations are coded into the device in advance. To avoid the risk of fines, you must update your device according to the manufacturer's instructions to remove the French speed cameras. Do not presume that if your car is not on French plates, French police will not be interested, or that as a tourist you can get away with more than a local driver. It is well known by French police that a much higher percentage of foreign registered cars than French registered cars are speeding on motorways (freeways) since there are still no general conventions for posting automatic speed fines abroad. Hence, foreign drivers caught in the act will be made to pay up in cash on the spot and if necessary accompanied by police to the nearest ATM. The car may be impounded if the fine cannot be paid on the spot.

Speed Limits in France

These limits apply unless another limit is indicated.
kph = kilometres per hour

Normal road conditions Rain Visibility below 50 metres (55 yards) (fog, heavy rain etc.)
Motorways (freeways) 130 kph
(81 mph)
110 kph
(68 mph)
50 kph
(31 mph)
Dual carriageways (at least 2 lanes in each direction, central reservation (median strip), outside town zones)  110 kph
(68 mph)
100 kph
(62 mph)
Other roads outside town zones 90 kph
(56 mph)
80 kph
(50 mph)
Within town zones (a town zone sign carries the name of the town on a rectangular panel on a white background, bordered by a red line; plane name signs in other colour combinations do not impact speed limits) 50 kph
(31 mph)

During rain, all speed limits, whether general or specific, are reduced as follows:
130 kph (81 mph) → 110 kph (68 mph)
110 kph (68 mph) → 100 kph (62 mph)
90 kph (56 mph) → 80 kph (50 mph)

Miles are not used in France. 1 mile = 1.6 kilometre (km). 1 yard = 0.91 metre (m).

Just in case of doubt, Americans should beware that the American rule of being allowed to turn right at red lights does not exist in France - or anywhere else in Europe that I am aware of. It is strictly illegal, except in some cases for bicycles if signs indicate it.

The general speed limits are only valid in normal conditions. You must reduce your speed in many cases, such as for example when passing a group of pedestrians or cyclists, when passing public transport or school transport vehicles during on- or offloading, when visibility is poor, when there is accommodation near the road etc. Use your common sense.

If the speed limit is exceeded by more than 30 km/hour, the driving licence can be withdrawn.

If the speed limit is exceeded by more than 50 km/hour, the car can be confiscated if the speeding driver is the owner, and is likely to be impounded on the spot. The maximum fine is 1500 euros and you may have to pay for getting the car towed away plus a daily storage fee until your trial.

The alcohol limit is 0.5 g per litre of blood, corresponding approximately to two 33 cl bottles of 5% beer, 2 glasses of wine or 6 cl of cognac (2 glasses) which in theory would bring you right to the limit. Drunk driving is no longer silently accepted as in the past, after a hard line was introduced in 2002 to lower the number of accidents. Beware that the alcohol testers available to the public are much less reliable than those used by the police. Even if cleared by such a commercial device, you may still be over the limit. It is more reliable to get to know how quickly your body processes alcohol and count your consumption and time if you are capable of doing that in the circumstances. The time it takes to consume one unit of alcohol may vary from one to two hours depending on body weight, percentage of body fat, simultaneous consumption of food, and other individual circumstances. Don't drive if in doubt.

Front fog lights may be used in fog, when it's snowing or during heavy rain to supplement or replace dipped headlights (low beams) or to supplement headlamps on full beam.
Rear fog lights may be used in fog or when it's snowing.

Mountain roads in France are less safe and more narrow than in neighbouring Switzerland. Many are without crash barriers, for example on Mont Ventoux. Many places, the locals drive on mountain roads as if they were trying to win a formula one race, cutting into your lane in curves. Watch out! If a faster driver is behind you on a mountain road and impatient to overtake, then pull in somewhere and let him pass when you can do it safely. It lowers stress levels for both you and him. He can continue his race, and you can continue enjoying the mountains instead of looking into your rearview mirror. Where there are steep cliffs near the road, rocks on the road are possible, and in rare cases, the side of the cliff has come down on top of a car. This would typically happen after heavy rain.

Requirements for all vehicles

Police may require you to show:

  • Your driving licence.
  • The vehicle's original registration document.
  • The insurance document ('green card').
  • Warning triangle
  • Fluorescent vest within reach of the driver without having to leave the cabin (i.e. if it is kept in the boot (trunk for Americans) and you can only get to the boot from the outside, you may be fined)

The much debated requirement to carry a breathalyser was abolished in March 2013.


P Locate a parking space for short or long term use online: oumegarer.com

When parking, you will find that some parking spaces are marked by blue paint instead of white. That means that you are supposed to place a disque in your windscreen and indicate the time of arrival. If you exceed the allowed time or omit to show a disque that is correctly set, you are eligible for a parking ticket. The requirement for a disque may also be shown by a sign instead. If you don't have a French disque, you can buy one in a tabac, supermarket, car equipment store etc.

Some spaces marked "LIVRAISON" are reserved for loading and/or offloading a vehicle. It is illegal to park there (parking means stopping more than 3 minutes), and the vehicle could be towed away. However, there is no restriction on the type of vehicle being loaded or offloaded. It doesn't have to be a van. The loading and offloading may be for professional or private purposes. The only restriction is that the vehicle must not remain there longer than the time necessary for the loading and/or offloading.

Car Fuel

Americans: a price of €1.50 for unleaded isn't a bargain, as fuel is sold in liters in France and Europe, not gallons. 1 US gallon = 3.7853 liters. At an exchange rate of 1.35 USD/EUR, €1.50 = $2.03. That's for one liter. That is $7.67 per gallon. Tax is the reason. Unfortunately, it's impractical to bring along your own gasoline. On the other hand, if you choose an economic hire car and drive sensibly, your total fuel bill per mile may not be much more than for a huge American uneconomical four-wheel drive.


essence or super = petrol (UK) = gasoline (US)
sans plomb
= unleaded
gazole or gasoil = diesel oil
(gaz de pétrole liquéfié) or just gaz = LPG (liquified petroleum gas)

or fuel = domestic heating oil
carburant = (car) fuel

Two versions of petrol are available, super 95 and high-octane 98.

Some places, there are two versions of diesel oil available, one more expensive than the other. The more expensive version contains additives to help prevent sooting up the engine, particularly if a diesel particle filter is installed. The particle filter can be clogged up by unburned particles over time if it doesn't become hot enough from time to time. Sooting up and clogging up can be a problem in modern diesel engines if they are mostly used in cities. If you use a hire car, you obviously won't see the long term benefit of preventing sooting up, so you can just use the cheaper version, unless the hire company has told you otherwise. If it's your own car and you mainly use it on highways and motorways, the ordinary diesel version may be sufficient.

Bio-Petrol 95-E10

Bio-petrol 95-E10 is a version of super petrol (gasoline) octane 95 that contains a percentage of fuel of vegetable origin. The consumer association UFC has discouraged its use because of the madness of using agricultural resources for burning in cars and because doing this forces food prices up.

If you still want to use it, you need to verify if it is compatible with your car engine. A list of such engines was published on the 19 October 2010 in the Official Journal. In case of doubt, you need to ask your car manufacturer or avoid using it, as the engine can be damaged if incompatible.

Fuel Prices in France

GPS Carbu. Download fuel prices to your GPS free. Daily updates. Compatible with many GPS models.
Prix-Carburants. Find the cheapest petrol station. Government site.
Zagaz. Find the cheapest petrol station. Prices are entered by users.

Motorway service stations typically take 10 cents more per litre than the cheapest service stations in France. You can often find much cheaper supermarket service stations near motorway exits. Below is some help.

Auchan supermarket service stations shown on an interactive map.
Cheap service stations near motorways. I have plotted a few cheap service stations near motorways into Google Maps. This is very incomplete.

Motorways - Freeways - Autoroutes

Beware the fuel prices are typically 10 cents higher per litre on motorway service stations. Read above under "Fuel Prices in France" for more information.

Most of France's motorways are managed by private companies that collect tolls according to the distance driven and the type of vehicle (vehicle class). To know the toll of a given route, let www.viamichelin.com calculate it for you or consult one of the concessionaries' web sites mentioned below.

www.autoroute-eco.fr gives you a way of saving a part of the toll if you don't mind taking an exit, paying, and then going straight back on the motorway. The site will tell you where to leave the motorway and get back on if you tell it where you intend to travel. This loophole is based on a pricing policy of making it cheaper to use certain toll booths.

Explanation of vehicle classes. Cars up to 2 metres tall are in class 1. You may want to verify the vehicle class on your receipt, as mistakes do happen.

The toll booths notably accept cash, Mastercard, Visa, French carte bleue. You can also get a transponder for your car so you are billed monthly. American Express and Diners Club are not accepted in general.

In most cases, you take a ticket when you enter a toll section and pay when you leave it. When approaching the toll booths, choose the lane according to your payment method in good time:
From left to right (with some exceptions):
t - Télépéage. For subscription customers only, having a transponder in the windscreen.
CB - Carte Bancaire. Unmanned booths. Cards only (Mastercard, Visa, French CB). No PIN code is required. International cards accepted. Not Diners Club.
- Manned booth. Cards or cash.
Orange hexagon: Trucks.
Some lanes accept a combination of the above payment methods, in which case more than one symbol is shown.
× - Lane closed.

The main concessionaries are:

SANEF Autoroutes:
- Paris-Normandy: Société des autoroutes Paris-Normandie (SAPN)
- Northern & Eastern France: Société des autoroutes du Nord et de l'Est de la France (SANEF)

Paris-Rhine-Rhône: Autoroutes Paris-Rhin-Rhône (APRR)

Vinci Autoroutes:
- Southern France: Autoroutes du Sud de la France (ASF)
- The Riviera: Autoroutes Esterel-Côte-d'Azur (ESCOTA)
- Western France: Cofiroute

There is a more complete list on Wikipedia.

Traffic Information

Bison Futé. Highway traffic information.
Sytadin. Road traffic in the Paris region minute for minute with interactive maps.

Maps, Route Planners, Satellite Photos

IGN Geoportail. Satellite photos and maps of France and French territories, all in 1:25000.
Google Maps. Maps, itinerary planning, satellite photos.
Google Satellite Photos
ViaMichelin. Maps, itinerary planning, satellite photos.
Mapquest route planner and worldwide maps for travel by car.
Maporama route planner and worldwide maps for travel by car.
Maps of administrative France. Départements and regions in maps and lists.
Risk Map. Maps and lists of risks commune by commune for the entire France. Flooding, earthquake, industrial, forest fires etc.
Map of polluting sites.

Car Hire in France

New concept: Buy-back from Peugeot. If you are travelling to Europe and need a car for more than 17 days, save money in a factory-new Peugeot. Insurance included. Only available to citizens not resident in the European Union (see my list of European Union member states if in doubt).

Public electric car hire schemes in cities

Paris was the first to introduce a scheme for hire of electric cars over the same model as the popular bike hire schemes. If it is a success, more cities are likely to follow.

Autolib. The official Paris electric car hire site, in English and French.

Compare sites and brokers

It may pay off to compare the compare sites and brokers, as it is not always the same site that gives the best offer, and there may be significant differences in prices.

Autoescape. Broker.
Bernard Tapie. Broker. In French only.
Comparecarrentals. Compare site.
Compare-car-rentals. Compare site.
EasyTerra. Compare site.
Fastcarhire. Compare site.
France-car-hire-rental.com. Broker.
LocationDeVoiture. Compare site. In French only.

Individual car hire companies

Ada France
Autoeurope. Cell / mobile phone and GPS rental possible.
Avis France.
Budget France.
eRentals. Over 8000 rental locations worldwide.
Europcar France.
Hertz France.
Super U.
Sixt France.

Long term car hire

Super U. 5 euros per day for a Fiat Pando incl. insurance if rented for 2 years.

Bicycle Hire in France

More and more French cities introduce public bike hire schemes to encourage urban travel in bicycles instead of cars. The site below tells you more about where they are and how to do.

In 2011, an electric car hire scheme was introduced in Paris using a model similar to the bike hire schemes. See under the heading Car Hire in France.

Freewheelingfrance.com. Site in English.

comments powered by Disqus