The Long Gear-Grinding Road, Part Four: Driving (Legally!) in France

They Can't Teach You Everything in School...

April 9, 2013By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update cartoon driving in france
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

As I recounted in Part Three of this series last week, one of the high points of my life to date was obtaining, at exorbitant human and financial cost, a French driver’s license. I had been to driving school, studied the traffic code, practiced behind the wheel with instructors and passed the tests. But that wasn’t the end of the road. As a man once said, we never stop learning. Then he shot himself. But he had a point.

In driving, as in corporate management, public service and binge drinking, there are skills and concepts that can only be refined through experience. And, as in criminal prosecution, tax accounting and sex, there are sometimes considerable differences between what one learns in school (or the schoolyard) and the way things are actually done.

To put it another way, there are written traffic laws and unwritten traffic laws. After a number of years of driving in France, I feel that I can now say that I have a fair comprehension of the latter.

In fact, I will: I have a fair comprehension of the latter. For example…

Written law:

“No parking” means “no parking” — you are forbidden to leave your car in a designated no parking zone.

Unwritten law:

“No parking” means “Well, let’s see here…”

The parking statutes in France, and in Paris in particular, are bent more often than a ballerina’s big toenail. There are so many gray areas that you need a Pantone chart to sort them all out.

With luck, you can park in a restricted zone just long enough to run a short errand, like picking up the laundry, dropping off the mail or holding up a convenience store. It helps to leave the emergency flasher on. And it helps even more to leave the engine running and door open — specifically, it helps a helpful passerby help you by helpfully moving your car to a legal parking place, like the paint bay of his uncle’s body shop out by the airport.

In addition, certain types of vehicles get a free pass on parking: official and emergency vehicles, of course, but also taxis, doctor’s cars with MD window stickers, hearses (to keep things symmetrical) and, generally, cars that cost more than a policeman’s annual salary.

That last one, by the way, is not a joke: I have a friend who bought a BMW specifically to save money on Paris parking tickets by inspiring the gendarmes’ respect for high-end midlife-crisis-mobiles. It worked.

As a man once said, everybody loves a winner. (Not the same man — this one was shot by his wife.)

Written law:

A yellow traffic light means that you should prepare to stop because the light is about to turn red.

Unwritten law:

It is a scientific fact that yellow is one of the colors that make up green.

It’s hard to believe now, but when I first moved to Paris 30 years ago, drivers actually stopped on yellow, and traffic lights were timed so that one direction turned green the very instant the other one turned red.

But we all know what happened: eager to make their fair contribution to gridlock, more and more drivers began rushing through the yellow, until finally the authorities changed the timing so that all lights are red for a moment at the end of each cycle. This means two things: the green lights are shorter and, knowing this, Parisian drivers now take more liberties about running freshly turned red lights.

If the trend continues, eventually the green lights will flash for a split second, like one blip of a strobe. In another few years, they’ll simply be discontinued, and we’ll have only yellow and red. Then the yellow lights will, in turn, gradually be shortened and ultimately eliminated, and every traffic signal in town will be set permanently to red. Which is pretty much what it feels like at rush hour now.

Written law:

You must maintain a safe following distance behind the next vehicle — the so-called “three-second rule.”

Unwritten law:

In France, the only “three-second rule” is the one observed by waiters and transplant surgeons.

Actually, the tailgating situation is getting better, as I mentioned in an article a while back. However, the technique is still used by certain drivers (defined as “testosterone-addled idiots”) for hassling other drivers who happen to come from certain places (defined as “not from around here”).

Yes, even in a proud and long-unified country like France, regional rivalries are kept alive by a small but reckless minority. This particular dark, malodorous, fungus-ridden corner of human nature used to be facilitated by the license plates: until a few years ago, the last two digits on a French plate indicated the car’s département (administrative region, vaguely the equivalent of a state in the United States).

This made it easy for a car from region A to be identified by a testosterone-addled idiot from region B, whose perceived patriotic duty it is to perpetuate a feud that began centuries ago for no known reason other than testosterone-addled idiocy.

To circumvent this problem (this is true), the government proposed eliminating the département numbers in 2009, but polls indicated that most drivers liked having their personal regions on display, as it were, so a compromise was reached: now they’re in a little box on the right, in a much smaller typeface than the license number.

This, of course, means that, for the above-mentioned jingoists, whose testicles and frontal lobes are as one, the only way to find out if the next car needs tailgating or not is to get close enough to read its département number. Ahh, tradition!

Written law:

It’s illegal to honk your horn within any city limits except in the case of clear and imminent danger.

Unwritten law:


There are many things that I hope to see before I die: peace in the Middle East, democracy worthy of the name around the world, cures for AIDS and cancer, and one — just one! — impatient hothead getting a ticket for honking his horn in a Parisian traffic jam.

In the time that I spent in driving school, I took about 20 sample tests to prepare for the written license exam, and in every single one there was a question about the intra-city horn ban. In other words, everyone knows that it’s illegal but they do it anyway, secure in the knowledge that the law is never enforced, making compliance about as likely as for “employees must wash hands” and that thing I hear once in a while about “thou shalt blah-blah-blah adultery.” Whatever.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve learned so far in the school of hard knocks (preceded by the kindergarten of screeching tires). And now you know too: if you’re in Paris and you see an MD in a BMW honking as he runs a red light, he’s probably just in a hurry to park illegally. Right behind the hearse at the funeral for the man who said, “That’s life!”


Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes: “Glad you made that hurdle, David. Now start working on your scooter license so that you can drive pedestrians off the sidewalks.”


© 2013 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.

Follow C’est Ironique on Facebook and Twitter.

What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.