How to drive like the French

French icon copyright Nathalie P/PhotoXpress

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 mown 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 tyres 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 (4,292 deaths in 2009). May it continue to decline.  

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. Highly entertaining – and I could not fail to notice how some of that culture has spread south to Spain. Unfortunately the more ‘creative’ styles are also being curtailed here by the Guardia Civil and the driving licence points system (and of course cameras)Ah for the good old days………however deaths here to are much reduced.


    • Thanks, Rob. I think the further south you go, the more dangerous the driving (ever driven in Greece, for example? Not for the faint-hearted). In the 13 years we’ve been here we have noticed a distinct tendency to drive more carefully, except for White Van Man; nothing on earth will stop him getting home for his lunch. Actually, nuns can be amongst the worst – maybe because they feel their place in paradise is already booked.


    • Many a true word spoken in jest, as they say. The failure to use indicators is what I find particularly irritating and the antics of White Van Man (although he’s just as bad in the UK).


  2. Nice 2CV (although I think it is actually a Dyane?)

    You’re spot on with these 11 lessons except you missed out the vitally important (and often misunderstood) Lesson eleven…. “Wherever possible, travel with a pig in the back seat!”

    You may be able to substitute sheep for pig but the principle remains the same.

    Or, is this something we only practice in Brittany?

    All the best


    P.S. It is generally not considered to be a good idea to substitute cow for pig unless your car is really rather large!


    • Oops, you can see how much I know about cars (that also goes for PhotoXpress, where I got it. Black mark for them). I got it specially for you as well! Never mind, it looks nice.
      You could substitute sheep for pig, as they do round here. One of our neighbour’s sheep fell into our swimming pool. Once we had hauled it out (not an easy task) we phoned him up and he came up in his car (not a 2CV) and bundled it dripping wet into the back seat, already occupied by his alsatian.


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