The Long Gear-Grinding Road: Getting a Driver’s License in France, Part One

No Wonder They Drive Like That!

December 9, 2023By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Driving in France.
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

As anyone who knows me will confirm, probably without being asked, I am something of a neurotic. I tend to be nervous in many situations, like speaking in public. Or in private. Or in my sleep.

Or driving. I am not one of those cool, self-assured drivers that you see in action movies, hip-hop clips, fragrance advertisements and real life.

It’s a question of attitude. Most people think of the automobile simply as a means of transportation. I have a good friend who thinks of the automobile as a sort of a real-life video game, as though the internal combustion engine had been invented solely to provide him (and whoever happens to be in his car or path) with adrenaline rushes. I, on the other hand, think of the automobile as an unwieldy, easily damaged, expensive responsibility that might kill me.

So I don’t particularly enjoy driving. In fact, one of the main things I like about living in Paris is that I don’t need a car. Public transportation is so good, traffic so bad and parking so difficult and costly that anyone who insists on getting around town by private vehicle has to be a fool, a spendthrift or a high-ranking government official. A non-exclusive set of categories if there ever was one.

Essentially, I only drive when Nancy and I go on vacation in the countryside and rent a car for the trip. For which reason I kept my U.S. driver’s license after I moved to France, renewing it under my mother’s address every few years. Which was good enough until one dark, gloomy, apocalyptic day back in the 1980s, when France changed its law about American driver’s licenses.

I try to keep C’est Ironique free of any actual historical facts, but the way I remember it, all U.S. licenses had previously been considered valid in France under all circumstances. Then, inspired by either nationalism or absinthe, the powers that être decreed that Americans with permanent residency (like me) had to get French licenses.

In what became one of the most widely discussed bits of expatriate lore, certain states’ licenses were exchangeable directly, but holders of licenses from other states were required to go through the long, laborious standardized examination process in order to drive legally in France.

Now here’s the strange, frustrating, baffling, Byzantine (or do I mean “French”?) part of this story: in a perverse twist of logic that I would soon come to recognize as a unifying thread in France’s policy toward prospective drivers, the list of “exchange states” was classified information. I’m not kidding – you could call the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and they would tell you whether or not your state was on the list, but they would not tell you which states were.

Somehow it became common knowledge that New Hampshire was one. Later I heard through the disgruntled American grapevine that there were four states on the list, including Michigan and South Carolina, but I never found out what the fourth was. What I did find out was that it was definitely not my state, Ohiowadaho.

And so, at the ripe, mature, sage, experienced age of my mid-most-possible forties, I went back to school. Driving school.

Yet another expatriate meme was that it was virtually impossible to pass the two exams, called the “code” and the “conduite” (respectively the written and behind-the-wheel tests) without going through a school, due to an alleged “racket” that the driving schools supposedly had going with the DMV.

This may or may not have been true, but, figuring that it wouldn’t hurt to improve my iffy knowledge of the traffic laws and my even iffier skill at driving a stick shift (automatics are rare and expensive in Europe), I looked around the driving academies in my neighborhood, made a mental list of the ones that looked like cheap, disreputable, fly-by-night license mills, picked the cheapest one and signed up.

Thus I found myself spending several evenings a week watching slide shows. At my school, the pedagogical process to prepare for the code exam consisted almost entirely of taking examens blancs (practice tests), and the tests consisted of still images, from a driver’s point of view, projected on a screen, each one accompanied by a little quiz in the standard MCQ (multiple choice question) format.

These tests were not easy. From the very first class, it became clear that in order to pass the examen noir, the real test on French traffic laws, I would have to acquire a deep, exhaustive, insightful understanding of two things:

1) French traffic laws.

2) The scheming, devious, downright perverse (there it is again) mentality of the practical jokers who make up the questions.

I personally suspect that the tests are produced by the descendants of the House of Bourbon, and this is how they have decided to seek revenge for the curtailment of Louis XVI’s reign and height measurement.

For example, in one test we were shown the “through the windshield” view of a car that was very obviously on an autoroute (freeway) and asked, “What is the speed limit?”

Since memorizing fair-weather and foul-weather speed limits (they’re different in France) for the various categories of roads was a major topic in code training, I knew that on the big highways, except when they pass through towns, the limit is 130 kilometers per hour (a little over 80 mph).

So I answered 130 – and got it wrong. It turned out that if you looked really, really (really) closely, the windshield wipers were raised by about two centimeters. In other words, it must be raining, even though the sky was not dark and no drops were visible on the windows, so the answer was 110. I could almost hear Marie Antoinette yelling “Gotcha!”

Here are a few more actual questions from “white tests” that I took, using the standard “Q&A&PI” (question and answer and perverse implication) format…

The image: Two lanes, one car just in front and no one else on the road ahead or behind, but a hill coming up.

Question: Can I pass this car?

Answer: I said no because of the hill – and, in what was rapidly becoming a familiar scenario, got it wrong. I was supposed to notice that there was an unbroken white line on the left side of the road, which in France indicates that this is a freeway, so the left lane is also going in my direction.

Perverse Implication: I could somehow go to the trouble of getting on a limited-access highway — following the signs, seeking out the entrance ramp, taking a ticket for the toll, merging into the oncoming tailgaters and speeding, overloaded trucks, etc. — and still not know that I’m on a freeway.

The image: An ordinary set of car registration papers.

Question: Is the color of the vehicle indicated on its registration?

Answer: It was a good thing that there are only two possibilities, because I had no phreaquingue idea. So I took a stab and said yes – and, of course, got it wrong. I suppose I should have realized that it would be absurd to make car owners change their registration every time they got a new paint job, but by this point I was so accustomed to vehicular absurdity that it didn’t cross my mind.

Perverse Implication: Not knowing this obscure, useless scrap of information somehow makes me a menace to public safety.

The image: A narrow country road, with a car parked half off the pavement just before a slight curve.

Question: Can I go around this car?

Answer: I could see around the curve, and there was no other car coming, so I said yes – and got it right! But that’s not why I mention this one. The reason the car in this test slide had pulled over was (no kidding) because the driver was urinating on a nearby tree. Anyone who has driven here will recognize this as an accurate, realistic depiction of the kind of situation encountered daily on French roads. And everyone, whether they’ve driven here or not, will be glad to know that the image of the micturating motorist was a cartoon, not a photo.

Perverse Implication: You’re in France – get used to it.

After a few weeks of this, I had absorbed a large body of information on the highway code – and a gargantuan body of information on second-guessing the test questions – and felt that I was ready for my “practical” lessons at the wheel of an actual car.

I have to put “practical” in quotes for reasons that will become clear next week…

In “Getting a Driver’s License in France, Part Two,” I drive a car around Paris while my instructors drive me around the bend. Details on March 20.

Note: this article was originally published on March 12, 2013.

Reader Debra Haley writes: “I remember having a question on my examen blanc where a man is standing by a crosswalk holding a baguette. The question is, ‘Do I have to stop for him?’ The answer is, ‘It depends. If the arm holding the baguette is down, then no, because he is just standing there. If the arm is up, then yes, because he is walking, and you have to stop if the pedestrian has started to enter the crosswalk’.”

© 2013 Paris Update


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