On the road: driving with – or sometimes without – a French licence

When we moved to France in 1997, we had to give in our UK driving licences to the Préfecture and apply for new French permis de conduire. I did feel a twinge of regret at having to hand over my licence but the new ones arrived reasonably quickly and they looked very similar. However, there are some significant differences between the UK and the French systems.

First, if you commit a contravention in the UK you gain points on your licence, up to 12, at which stage it’s taken away. In France, you lose them. You start with 12 points and lose them for every contravention. There’s a tariff according to how serious the offence is – more of that below.

Second, you get the French licence for life – there’s no expiry date. In the UK, it’s renewable every three years from age 70, provided you are medically capable of driving. This issue has caused some controversy in France. There are a number of cases of séniors driving the wrong way up busy motorways or ploughing fatally into pedestrians. This has led to calls for restrictions after a certain age. On the other side, people point out that testosterone-laden youths are equally likely to cause accidents, especially when fuelled with drugs or alcohol.

For the moment, though, you can drive aged 100 if you want to. In fact, some of the old chaps around here driving rusting 2CVs, wearing a beret and barely able to see over the steering wheel, can’t be far off that age.

Big Brother is watching you, even down here

We have rarely had to produce our driving licences, except on a couple of occasions when a routine police contrôle stopped us. The SF had a little brush with the authorities when caught speeding by a radar camera a couple of years ago. These have sprouted like mushrooms during the past five years or so. The locals regularly demonstrate the unpopularity of the one near our village by spray-painting it black or wrapping it in gaffer tape.

On the fateful occasion, the SF had picked me up from the airport late at night. Driving back round the Montauban by-pass, he started fulminating about Gordon Brown. Unfortunately, this made him put his foot down, just at the point where there is a speed camera.

The authorities allow a certain margin for error, but he had the bad luck to be going 2kph faster than that. Result? A €45 fine and a point off his licence. He got the point back after a year so he now has the full complement. So far, and touching wood hard when I write this, I haven’t lost any. No doubt I am tempting providence. But we’re both very careful about keeping to the speed limits.

Penalty Points

Each driving offence has its penalties, normally a fixed number of points taken away plus a fine or imprisonment in more serious cases. There are the obvious ones, like speeding, burning a red light or drink-driving. But did you know that you can face a maximum fine of €750 for keeping your full beam on at night when a vehicle is coming from the opposite direction? You have to be caught doing it, of course, so I suspect that one doesn’t get imposed very often.

I was surprised to see from the official website  that driving while using a mobile phone incurs only 2 points and a fine of €35. Since the same website says that this is the 4th cause of death on the roads in France the mildness of the penalty seems a little perverse. One constantly sees people driving around here with mobiles clamped to their ears.

Here’s one that I’m all in favour of. Changing direction without indicating incurs 3 points and a €35 fine. This particular offence drives me nuts and I’m afraid to say that the French are exponents of it par excellence.

Since writing this, here’s another one close to my heart. If you don’t give way to a pedestrian crossing the road you get 4 points off and a fine of €135. A recent change in the law says that you have to stop even if they simply show clearly that they are planning to cross. The pedestrian can cross the street wherever they like, except if they are within 50 metres of a pedestrian crossing, in which case they are obliged to cross there. Their penalty for not doing so – €4.

You take you life in your hands crossing the street in our village, which has a major road running through it. You can even be halfway across the crossing and they don’t stop. Where are the gendarmes when you need them? 

A Few Figures

According to official figures, motorists were caught committing almost 22.5 million driving offences in France in 2010, 4.9% up on 2009. This has led to people trying to avoid losing their licence by getting their spouse or partner to take the rap for them. This is not unknown in the UK, of course, especially among pillars of the community who ought to be giving a better example. The number of people driving when banned has gone up here, too.

Hearteningly, deaths on the French roads have more than halved since 1999 from around 8,500 to just under 4,000 in 2010. The number of injured has halved, too. People are driving more slowly and more safely. This doesn’t mean that you won’t regularly get White Van Man driving right up against your rear bumper or budding Alain Prosts overtaking you on blind corners. But it does make the French roads more pleasant to use, at least around here. I can’t answer for la Périphérique, which is no doubt still the driving equivalent of Hell.   

See also my tongue in cheek post ‘How to drive like the French’.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. Its funny how similar the road rules and the drivers’ complaints are around the world. The basics seem to be the same everywhere. Did you know that in some parts of the US you can be fined $350 for honking your horn? Yipe. It doesn’t really seem to be helping. We love our horns.


    • Thanks for the info about the US. I didn’t know that. I don’t think it would be a good idea to introduce it in France: Parisians in particular would have terrible withdrawal symptoms if they couldn’t use their horns! It might even spark off another revolution.


  2. Worth noting that speeding fines, and points, are on a graduated scale according to how much faster than the limit you’re going – quite sensible in my opinion – and that if you’re caught going really fast the police take the car keys away and you’re left to find your own way home. This happened to someone I knew – he was doing over 200 kmph on the motorway on his way back to England and had to get someone to fly over and pick the car up. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person…


    • Thanks for adding this. I agree about the graduated scale. Even despite all these sanctions, we are amazed at the number of people who flash past us on the motorway, obviously doing well over the limit. I shudder to think what would happen if they had an accident at that speed – and not just to them.


  3. Yes it is the same here in Spain (we lose points for offences) but if we are good boys and girls we are given extra ones ie rewards! You can legally drive on any EU issued ID type licence until it expires then you must renew it in the country in which you are resident. The Brits here use their Spanish licence it for ID as we do not possess ID cards.


    • When we moved here we had to hand in our UK licences. There was no choice. Maybe the rules have changed since 1997.

      Rewards, eh? Sounds like a good idea. I would qualify for one of those!


  4. I suppose every country has its idiosyncrasies behind the wheel but some of the strange behaviour here beggars belief. Thanks for the info on the points system. Loved your ‘how to drive like the French’! I’ve posted on French drivers too and our locals seem pretty typical.


    • The official website that I linked to in the post has a handy leaflet detailing the various driving offences and the tariff of points/fines and even prison sentences that they involve. Actually, the most dangerous drivers around here are the ones that go terribly slowly since everyone gets so impatient waiting to overtake. They are usually blissfully unaware of the queue building up behind.


  5. I like France more and more! When I was back in the UK, driving in a hire car from Bristol airport in nose to tail traffic, I got a speeding fine of £65 and 3 points off my licence … it would have been “a fair cop guv” if they had caught me after Bath. In Italy you have to produce your driving licence all the time and if, God forbid, you have forgotten to have it in the car with you they can sequester your car.


    • In France, too, you’re supposed to have the licence with you whenever you drive. I suspect you could be liable to a fine for not having it but haven’t been able to find out.


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