Traffic in Paris: Driving Me Mad

October 19, 2010By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
french drivers
The (unwritten) traffic laws are different for motor scooters.

I grew up in a small town in the Midwestern United States, where pedestrians always waited patiently for red Don’t Walk lights even though there was virtually no traffic. (Anyone who has spent any time in Paris probably already sees where this is going.) It took me a while after moving here to get used to jaywalking, which is as common on Parisian streets as cigarette butts.

But, unlike smoking, jaywalking is sensible: why lose whole consecutive seconds of your life standing on the curb if you can cross more or less safely against the light? Unfortunately, however, this widespread lax attitude toward the traffic laws extends up the range of locomotion methods, becoming riskier with each step into a higher power and speed class.

Let’s consider bicycles. Paris is becoming more bike-friendly, which is a great thing, but we still have too many cyclists who think they have the universal right-of-way, ignoring all red lights, Do Not Enter signs, terrified screams, etc. An especially blatant offender crossed my path about a month ago. I was crossing Rue des Martyrs — not jaywalking (for once) but in the crosswalk with a green Walk light — next to an elderly woman with a cane. Despite the fact that she obviously had trouble walking and couldn’t move fast, a guy on a bike came barreling through his red light, making no effort to avoid us or even slow down, ringing his bell madly to let us know that it was our responsibility to get out of his way. “Guy” wasn’t the term I used when I questioned his behavior.

Next we have motorized two-wheelers. Paris abounds in motor scooters, which are of course cheaper and, in heavy city traffic, more convenient than a car. After years of observation, I have finally come to a realization about Parisian scooter riders. Believe it or not, there’s a consistent logic in the way they drive: they follow the “Two Wrongs Make a Right” principle, under which each infraction of the traffic code can be cancelled out by an accompanying infraction. For example:

It’s not illegal to run a red light — if you’re on the sidewalk.

It’s not illegal to go the wrong way down a one-way street — if you stay well over the speed limit.

It’s not illegal to pass a car on the right — as long as there’s no lane there.

Which brings us to automobiles. And as every North American or Northern European who has driven in France knows, that means one thing: tailgating. Last year I observed in an article for Paris Update that French drivers don’t tailgate as much as they used to 25 years ago. I would like to revise that statement: the Ardèche is in a timewarp. I recently spent a week in that stunningly beautiful region just north of Provence, and it seems that a great many Ardéchois drivers (compared with a tiny minority between there and Paris) have never learned that it’s stupid and pointless to hug the rear of the car ahead of them as though next Saturday’s winning lottery number were inscribed on its bumper in 7-point Helvetica Light.

How is one to deal with these sui- and homicidal jerks? Making irate or obscene gestures at them doesn’t help, especially since they’re probably already doing that to you. Slowing down, preferably way down, is not bad — not only is it poetic justice but it’s also safer, for obvious (to most people, anyway) reasons.

Halfway through my Ardèche trip, which was otherwise heavenly, I came up with an idea: when the tailgater finally passes me, figuring that he/she might look over to see what kind of idiot actually observes the speed limit, I contort my face into an exaggerated “dumb” look, mouth open, chin pulled back, tongue slightly out as though I’m drooling, eyes goggling and head bobbling. And I keep looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, in the hope that they won’t figure out it’s my imitation of them until later.

Note here that I said I came up with “an idea,” not “a good idea.” But since I’d like a good idea for handling this situation, I put it to our readers: Do you get tailgated in France, and what do you do about it?

Click here to send a message, and we’ll see if anyone in this informal survey has a truly effective strategy. I promise to follow the results very, very closely.


Reader Thirza Vallois writes: “Currently in New Zealand, I can’t help being entertained by this article. This last weekend, on the eve of the equivalent of Labor Day, in order to pre-empt any bad driving, there were electronic warnings on road sides that read “MORE POLICE OUT THIS WEEKEND!” which we found all the more hilarious as we came across one car per 30 minutes on average at the peak of Labor Day Weekend. At least that was the case in the Southern Alps of the South Island headed towards Mount Cook. You could argue that things were certainly busier around Auckland, but the warnings we saw posted were on those very lonely roads! And the only policeman we saw during the entire weekend was giving a ticket for speeding to the driver who had overtaken us just a few minutes earlier. No, there is definitely no danger of being gatetailed over here!
“There are 4.5 million Kiwis as against some 60 million Frenchmen (and women). This possibly explains why all the Kiwis I’ve had dealings with were universally friendly, always responding to a query with a radiant, cheerful smile, always ready to help. And all of them loved France!”

Reader Alan Lewis writes: “I too get quite annoyed and uncomfortable when a French driver (or anyone for that matter) is following me too closely. My solution? I simply pull over as soon as possible and let the passing driver check out what he just passed – a Citroën 2CV! Then I happily continue my journey with no one behind me or in front of me!”

Reader John Banks writes: “Thanks for the piece—resonates well with me. As a former Californian, I was appalled at first by the tailgaters. I reacted stupidly at first, flipping a couple of them off, only to have them pass me and come to a complete stop (in traffic!). So now I no longer react, or at least try not to. I discovered that the best reaction is no reaction—just to ignore them. If the tailgating appears to be at a dangerous level, I’ll slow way down and signal for a right turn. I’ve noticed that it seems to be a French thing—as soon as I cross a border, say Germany or the U.K., drivers seem less arrogant and rude. I’ve considered installing some kind of sign that pops up at the back of my car: ‘Vous êtes trop proche, s.v.p.’”

Reader Silvia Bianconcini writes: “As an Italian traveling often to Paris I must say that should you ever come to my country, you’d probably have a panic attack once on the road! French drivers are wonderful, polite and kind compared to Italian ones, and I’m not joking. The difference between French and Italian traffic is that the first is very well disposed even when there’s a jam. In Italy drivers are quite chaotic so cars are anywhere and without logic. But you can have your moments of revenge, too. For example, tailgating: when the tailgater passes you and some meters along finds a police car standing on the side of the road (it happens, it happens)… then you arrive slowly, calmly, you pass in front of him, and you laugh at his efforts to give explanations to the policemen. Anyway, the tip of signaling for a right turn is very effective here in Italy as well. So, the tailgater thinks you are going to turn or to stop on the side of the road and passes without insulting you.”

© 2010 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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One Comment

  • I am staying in Paris with my husband for 4 months. I love my neighbourhood, St Marguerite, in the 11th, but ours is a narrow street where motorcycles go up and down from early morning to fairly late at night. I’m not bothered by the speed of vehicles and I don’t drive, so tailgating, etc., doesn’t affect me – it’s the noise of the revving unmufflered motorcycles that hurts my soul. It is constant: I have counted and a motorcycle noise occurs every few minutes. The other day I saw one pop a wheelie in our little street! This is my only complaint. I find the people in Paris friendly and kind and the city wonderfully walkable.

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