French driving rules are contained in le Code de la route – a 500-page collection of laws and regulations for the road. Some, like the notorious priorité à droite rule, can cause confusion if you are not used to them.
Priority to the right
This rule was introduced in the 1920s and often causes confusion to British drivers, who assume anyone entering their road should give way to them – but that is not necessarily the case.
Priorité à droite is a default rule that you must stop or slow to allow drivers to enter your road from a junction on the right, unless there is a give way or stop sign at that junction.
A driver on a main road might think this does not apply to people entering from a minor side road, but it does, unless there is signage to the contrary.
A sign with a yellow diamond in a white border, on the other hand, indicates that drivers maintain the priority for all junctions along it until they come to the same sign with a black line across it.
Increasingly, stop and give way signs have been widely introduced to supersede the rule but, for some, the old ways are still the best.
Recently, councillors at Tréméven, Finistère, put up signs at the entrance to the village, warning drivers they are entering a priority to the right area. They claim it is the best way of slowing down traffic.
Roundabouts are widely claimed to have been invented by a Parisian architect and town planner in the early 20th century. However, with the introduction of priority to the right shortly afterwards, cars on the roundabout were to give way to cars coming on to it.
In the 1970s, communes were influenced by the new kind from the UK, which are now the most common.
Rond-point is commonly used to refer to both types, but officially this refers to the old version, and the new ones are carrefours à sens giratoire.
The sign for a rond-point is a blue circle with white arrows round it and it has no road markings. Drivers on it have to slow down to let someone in.
A carrefour à sens giratoire is shown with a circle of black arrows in a red triangle or a blue circle with white arrows and cédez le passage (give way) signs, plus broken white lines at the junction. Vehicles already on the roundabout have priority.
France is reputed to have by far the most roundabouts in Europe. It is estimated there are more than 65,000. To take the first right, put your indicator on just before entering the roundabout. To go straight on, stay in the right-hand lane and indicate right just before you exit.
To go further round, signal left as you enter the roundabout, take the left lane and signal right just before you exit. If you cannot exit safely, then go around the roundabout again.
In roundabouts with more than two lanes, you always take the left one to go full circle but, if more convenient, take a middle lane to turn off to the left.
Legal speed limits on major roads are automatically reduced for rain, sleet and snow: 130kph goes down to 110kph, 110kph to 100kph, and 90kph to 80kph. When visibility is less than 50m, all roads are restricted to 50kph.
Permis à points
The French driving licence starts with 12 points and you lose points for offences, as opposed to the UK system where you gain points.
Speed camera detectors
These are illegal, with fines up to €1,500 and loss of six points. If you have a mobile phone or GPS device which carries a radar warning system, you should switch off that function. This applies strictly to devices that physically detect the camera (détecteur). Since 2012, it also applies to devices that use GPS plus a database to precisely warn you of camera positions (avertisseur) – but you can have a device or app that is merely a driving aid (aide à la conduite).
Legal French ones can alert you to being in a “dangerous zone”, which in practice means a camera, but only over a 4km zone on a motorway, 2km on routes nationales or 500m in built-up areas.
An official map shows the position of 3,275 fixed speed cameras.
In the car
You must have a reflective safety vest (gilet de sécurité) accessible to you in the car and an orange triangle (which can be in the boot). If you have to stop suddenly, you must wear the vest out of the car and put hazard lights on.
You should, in most cases, place the triangle at least 30m behind the car. Non-compliance can carry fines of up to €375.
In the case of stopping on an autoroute, do not walk down the motorway and do not place the triangle if it will put your life at risk. Get out of the car and behind the safety barrier.
You should always be able to show documents, including insurance, driving licence and vehicle registration document.
It used to be required to have a breath test kit in the car, but this was abandoned in 2020.
Most road traffic offences come under the heading of contravention, a relatively minor offence ranging in severity from a €38 fine for class one to €1,500 for class 5.
The limit is 0.5g of alcohol per litre of blood (roughly two small standard alcoholic drinks).
Low emission zones
Cars entering zones à faibles émissions mobilité must carry a Crit’Air air quality certificate.
A bad rating means access can be restricted at certain times or days, according to local regulations. Zones concerned are in the following cities and, in some cases, nearby communes: Lyon, Grenoble, Paris, Aix-Marseille, Nice, Toulon, Toulouse, Montpellier, Strasbourg and Rouen.
New rules for 2021
From November, it will be obligatory for drivers to use snow tyres or chains in mountain areas up to March 31. Prefectures will draw up a list of communes where it applies.
Our main image was drawn for The Connexion by artist Perry Taylor.