Driving in France
This article is a travel topic
Roads range from the narrow single-lane roads in the countryside to major highways.
Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centers tend to be unwieldy for cars, especially large ones. The most scenic roads in mountain areas also tend to be winding and narrow. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. In cities, it often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.
Roads are classified into the following categories:
- Axxx: autoroute (Motorway/freeway) (red number sign)
- Nxxx: national road (red number sign; sometimes referred to as RNxx)
- Dxxx: departmental road (yellow number sign; sometimes referred to as RDxx or CDxx)
There also are municipal (white number sign) and forestry roads (green number sign).
Note that though major map brands also use a red/yellow/white chart for roads, it has a different meaning: red means major roads, yellow means intermediate roads, and white means minor roads. A departmental road may be major, for instance.
Note that "Routes Départementales" are strictly that: each Département has its own D1, D2, etc., and D-road numbers change at Département boundaries. The government has gradually transferred national roads to départements; they are then generally numbered in a way that reminds of the original numbering. For instance, in some départements, national road number xx becomes departmental road number 9xx, in others 60xx, in others 90xx. Older signs and maps may refer to the original number.
Autoroutes, national roads and most departmental roads are almost always in good or excellent conditions. In some rural areas, secondary departmental roads may have worse conditions. In mountainous areas, roads may also have been damaged by frost, landslides, and so on, though such dangers are always signposted.
Main roads are signposted with the names of towns or cities in the direction you're going and only secondarily with the road number. Directions in green are for major destinations through major highways ; in blue, for directions through Autoroutes. Péage means "toll". When driving out of town, look for toutes directions ("all destinations") or autres directions ("all other destinations", that is, all places other than the ones on an adjacent sign), which will point you to the main route.
If you have time, use the smaller roads. The speed is decent and you don't pay tolls; however you'll have to slow down to 50 km/h when driving through villages. Still, you have the opportunity to drive through small towns and villages, stop and grab a bite in the restaurants or buy local wine.
Detailed maps (1/200 000 scale approximately) are highly advisable unless you stick only to main cities and main highways. France has many useful or scenic secondary roads that you will not find on less detailed maps. Michelin and IGN provide good maps; they also make bound atlases containing all maps for metropolitan France (the European French territory). GPS with a detailed map may also be a good choice, especially if you do not have a passenger.
Do not underestimate driving times, especially if not going by autoroute. A rule of thumb is to expect an average speed of 60 km/h going by major roads outside autoroutes.
Most of the autoroute (motorway/freeway) links are toll roads. Some have a toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations, and it is rather common to encounter both on the same autoroute. Don't lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest distance plus additional fees. All toll stations accept major credit cards but you can use the automatic booth (Télépéage) only if your card is equipped with an appropriate transponder. UK citizens can now buy the transponder chip directly from Sanef in the UK at 
Paying tolls is quite easy: just insert a credit card (or give it to the cashier along with your ticket) and go (Note that Maestro and Visa Electron cards are not accepted.) You can pay with coins as well. Sometimes you get a ticket to calculate the toll. You may have to slide the ticket and then the credit card into the same slot or into two different slots. Generally, though, €500 bills are not accepted at toll booths.
There are almost 12 000 km (7500 mi) of Autoroutes in 2012. Toll Autoroutes(3/4 of the network)have good road condition and are well-maintained. Free Autoroutes(1/4 of the network)are situated near big cities and have good to bad road condition.
The vast majority of the network is composed of 2x2 lanes (two lanes in each directions), but you can find 2x3 lanes on crowded autoroutes like the A10 or A6, 2x4 lanes and 2x5 lanes near big cities.
Check out information on routes through France by motorway or avoiding motorway tolls at Driving in France.
The speed limit inside cities is 50 km/h, though some wide avenues may be specifically labeled 70 km/h. In downtown or residential areas, the speed limit may be reduced to 30 km/h.
Almost all French cities were built before the mass availability of automobiles. Streets in city centers may date from the Middle Ages or the early modern era. Expect an irregular map, narrow streets, one-way streets, pedestrians crossing the streets even if they have a red light, cobblestones and pedestrian areas. It is almost always a better idea to leave your car at a parking lot before visiting a historical center.
It is often difficult to find a particular street inside a city. Street names are written on small signs, which makes them difficult to read from a car, especially if traffic is moving. It is almost always compulsory to have a street map for the city you are visiting in order to find a particular street, or to use a GPS device. Street maps can be bought from newsagents and libraries. If you end up in an unknown city and you do not have a map, it may make sense to head for the train station ("gare") since it will have both a parking lot and a newsagent. Finding a street in a small town or village can be a challenge since publishers do not usually produce maps for these. Try printing a map from Google Maps or using a GPS device.
The outside of cities, in contrast, was often built after automobiles were widespread. All cities have several commercial areas outside of town where large supermarkets and other stores are located in the midst of large parking lots; often there will also be budget hotels such as Formule 1 or Première Classe. Though these areas are unappealing and not so "typical", they are perhaps the most handy place to buy supplies if you have a car.
France has several mountaineous areas: the Vosges, the Jura, the Alps, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. In the winter, due to the snow, some roads (especially passes) may be closed to traffic or require special equipment (snow chains). Roads leading to passes have signs that say whether the pass (col) is open (ouvert green sign) or closed (fermé red sign).
Except for the highest passes, most of the major roads are kept usable using snowplows. This may not be true of some secondary roads.
During winter vacations, especially in the weekends, expect traffic jams on roads leading to skiing resorts.
France drives on the right.
Unless it is clearly posted on the road you are using, you are supposed to yield (give way) to any vehicle coming from your right from another public thoroughfare. However, roads generally work along a system of priorities: main thoroughfares will be flagged as "priority" and all crossroads will yield.
Priorité à droite - the old French system was to give priority to all traffic coming from the right. This still applies at unmarked crossroads in the countryside, in small villages, as well as minor streets inside cities, etc. Most other road crossings have some kind of priority system implemented. Yellow lozenge signs indicate that your road is prioritary (all other roads must yield); a yellow lozenge with a bar shows ends this. Watch out; for drivers from other countries this is one of the most confusing aspects of French driving.
France uses many roundabouts (ronds-points). Traditional French-style roundabouts are signposted by a round blue sign, and drivers inside the roundabout have to yield to incoming traffic (which comes from their right). However most roundabouts are now preceded by an international-style triangular sign above a message stating that you do not have the right of way ("Vous n'avez pas la priorité"), and drivers approaching the roundabout have to yield to drivers on the roundabout. Though many non-European drivers seem to fear roundabouts, there is actually nothing scary to them: just yield to the traffic inside the roundabout, and turn right at the exit you wish. Two advantages to roundabouts are if you are unsure of the road to take, you can simply go round the roundabout until you have decided; also, they make it easy to make a U-turn.
Signposts used in France are patterned according to EU recommendations and use mostly pictograms (not text). The following signs are essential for finding your way on a map and avoiding tickets.
Toll road if the word "péage" appears Green sign with Nx indicates national highway.
White sign with Dx or Cx indicates local roads. Entering a city.
Reduce speed to less than 50 km/h, unless otherwise indicated. Brown sign
Tourist information Trunk (priority) road. "Priorité à droite" does not apply. End of trunk road (after this sign you have to give way to traffic from the right, unless directed otherwise) Yield (give way) to vehicle on the other road Stop before entering or crossing the other road
Do not enter (no entry) Red round sign means : forbidden
Speed limit (in Km/Hr) Newest addition : Speed checking ahead - either automatic cameras or handheld devices Red round sign means : forbidden
No parking Red triangle sign means : danger
Cattle crossing Blue round sign means : must
You must turn right Blue square sign means : information
Parking lot with meters
- Traffic lights go directly from red to green: there is NO red-and-amber phase to warn you they are about to change. If you are slow in reacting, you may get a gentle horn reminder from the car behind. The lights are often mounted high and cannot be seen if you are the first car in the queue, often there is a small repeater light at head height on the post for this purpose.
- Lights do have a amber phase and switch from green-to amber-to red. You may pass through on an amber light only if you are not able to stop safely. However, take care in big cities during rush hours if the traffic seems nervous and congested. Many drivers may become impatient and will attempt to pass through an intersection on an amber light phase and may assume you will do as well.
- Some aggressive French drivers will pass through an intersection even though the light has just turned red. This is not only dangerous but also illegal. Increasingly, red-light cameras (radars aux feux rouges) are being installed to photograph the registration plates of vehicles passing through red lights. Fines levied by red-light cameras are sent automatically by post.
- In case of traffic jam, you are NOT allowed to pass through a green light controlled intersection if you are not certain of being able to clear the intersection before the light switches back to red. Do not enter any intersection when it is blocked by any vehicular, pedestrian or other traffic at any time regardless of the colour of the light.
- You are NOT permitted to turn right on a red light, unless there is an amber right-arrow flashing, and after yielding to any vehicle or other road user on the other road.
- On some traffic lights there is a little yield sign with a yellow bike and arrow inside : this sign ONLY allow bicyclists to turn right on red after yielding the right of way to other road vehicle traffic and on pedestrians.
- If the lights are off, or amber-flashing, you must follow the sign (priority or yield sign) that is present on the light pole or nearby its fixing point. If there is no sign, the priorité à droite (priority to the right) principle applies: yield to any vehicle coming from your right. Take extra care and reduce speed in such cases as disabled lights are quite uncommon and may lead to confusing and potentially dangerous situations arising during any service outage.
The right of way exercised by any emergency vehicle is always paramount regardless of traffic light colour.
Most cars in France have a manual gearbox (stick shifts), you may find difficult or even impossible to operate if you have only ever driven vehicles with automatic transmissions. If you rent a car, and you want an automatic, then be sure to explicitly request this requirement in advance .
Many personal cars run on diesel fuel; make sure you know whether your car runs on diesel or gasoline (petrol) (l'essence). Diesel cars are more economical to operate than gasoline fuelled cars.
When renting a car in France, it is often advantageous to rent in advance from your home country in order to secure a vehicle that you want and at the best available price. Leaving the rental plans until the last minute will leave you vulnerable to the foreign currency exchange rate and possible volatile prices during the height of a tourism season.
For short term rentals, you will find numerous familiar big name agencies (Hertz,SIXT,Avis,Alamo) which you can book through a number of online portals and compare prices side by side (Orbitz,Kayak,Expedia). All of the above rental agencies usually have similar pricing, vehicles and rental policies.
For rentals exceeding three weeks, it is often advantageous to use a "short term" lease buy back program. The lease buy back programs are uniquely French and offer a tax-free alternative to car rentals that can often have an overall lower cost and better value than a tradition car rental. The programs are typically run by the big three French auto makers Peugeot, Renault, and Citroen. Short term leasing offers clients a brand new vehicle, full insurance, unlimited mileage, and flexible driving rules compared to traditional car rentals. You must be a NON European resident to take part in this and one downfall is that you must have need for a car for more then three weeks in order to benefit from the service. Only certain agencies are authorized to sell these leases to US residents. Some of them include; Auto France, Inc. Peugeot(US), Citroen Europass (US), Renault USA (US).
Law enforcement forces (Police Nationale or Gendarmerie depending on the area) may stop you in order to check that you have a valid driving licence, valid insurance and that your vehicle has passed safety tests. In the case of rental cars, the insurance and safety documents are provided by the rental company. If you have your own motor vehicle, you may have to show the European "green card" (this is not always necessary) proving you have insurance. If you are driving your own vehicle from a country where the minimum legal requirement for 'third party' insurance is in force, you do not need a 'green card': you will however need to provide an insurance certificate to prove that the vehicle is insured.
If you park illegally, law enforcement forces or traffic wardens will put a ticket under your windscreen or windshield wiper. You can pay it by personal check drawn from a French bank (not very useful for tourists) or buying a timbre fiscal (tax stamp) from a tobacconist, sticking it on the ticket, and mailing it to the authorities. If you actually see the law enforcement agent, you can also pay him directly in cash or by check to the Public Treasury in exchange for a receipt. Technically, you can also challenge the fine in court if inappropriate, but this is probably to be left to people with lots of time on their hands. If you commit a traffic offense using a rental car and you do not pay it directly (like speeding tickets by photo radar), the rental car company may bill you for them and may apply a surcharge.
Law enforcement sometimes read your ticket at the toll station to see how long you took since joining the autoroute: they are not allowed to use that info to give you a speeding ticket. On the other hand, be aware that there is a new automatic photo-radar system that is being implemented throughout France. For now, this system is most commonly found along major highways, and near major cities, but it expands quickly. Large brown rectangular signs warn when you are entering an automatic photo radar area.
Here a few tips about photo-radar area:
- If you find that the average speed of French cars is surprisingly lower than 5 min before, then you must have entered such an area.
- Law enforcement forces may install mobile photo-radar system. You will be warned but the sign is much smaller than for permanent area.
- Your speed may also be controlled virtually anywhere without warning. In such a case, you will be directly intercepted and fined if you committed a speeding offense. Very often, these controls are less strict than photo-radar: for example, if the speed limit is 110 km/h, you will be intercepted only if you exceed, say, 120 km/h. But this is not always the case.
When not otherwise specified, the speed limit is 130 km/h on freeways motorways (reduced to 110 km/h in urban areas), 110 km/h on divided highways (always specified), 90 km/h otherwise, and 50 km/h in city areas. In wet conditions, these limits are reduced to respectively, 110 km/h, 100 km/h, 80 km/h, and 50 km/h. In case of snow, ice, or heavy fog, the speed is limited to 50 km/h on all roads.
As of October 2005, the typical fines for speeding are:
- less than 20 km/h above limit: 68€ (90€ in city area), 1 demerit point ;
- 20 to 50km/h above limit: 90€ to 250€, 2 to 4 demerit points ;
- more than 50km/h above limit: 1500€, minimum 6 demerit points.
Drunk driving is a very serious offense. The tolerated limit is 0.50 g/L (0.05% BAC) in blood: being above this limit is thus illegal and can entitle you a fine up to 750€ and 6 demerit points. If you are found above 0.80 g/L (0.08% BAC) or refuse to pass the test, the fine may reach 4500€ followed by an immediate withdrawal of your driving license; jail sentences and confiscation of the vehicle are also possible.
All passengers are required to wear their seat belt and children under 10 must use the back seat unless there are no rear seats or the they are all occupied by children under 10 (the fine is 135€ per persons not wearing a seat belt as well as 1 demerit point if the offender is the driver). For more information visit The AA.
Being caught with a radar detector, even in your luggage, is a serious offense and will result in the device being confiscated and a fine of at least €2000
Talking on a hand held mobile phone while driving in France is forbidden.
In theory, motor vehicles have to yield to pedestrians that have started crossing the street and are encouraged to stop for those who have not started. In practice, though, many French drive more aggressively. Keep in mind, though, that they are more used to local conditions than you are.
Many pedestrians cross the street outside of marked crossings or when they have a red light but they feel they have sufficient time, especially in large cities such as Paris. Cyclists also engage in daring maneuvers. Remember that even if a pedestrian or a cyclist should not have crossed your road according to traffic rules, if you harm him, you will always be held responsible for damages (in practice, your insurance will pay) and may also be prosecuted for failing to control your vehicle.
The kind of "creative" driving commonly found in Mediterranean countries is not accepted in France and is likely to lead to either accidents or arrest by law enforcement.
Three types of fuels are generally available: diesel (diesel, gasoil or gazole), lead-free 95RON-octane gasoline (Sans plomb 95), lead-free 98RON-octane gasoline (sans plomb 98). Leaded gasoline (super) is no longer available.
A newer fuel, available since 2009, is "SP95-E10". It is generally equivalent to Sans plomb 95'; almost all cars from 2000 onwards accept it. It includes 10% ethanol and is slightly cheaper than regular SP95.
All cars accepting Sans plomb 98 also accept sans plomb 95. Some current cars, particularly high performance, require sans plomb 98, however many of these cars incorporate a knock sensor that allows the use of 95 octane fuels with some performance and economy loss.
Gas stations are found in all cities and towns along highways as well as on supermarket parking lots. Supermarket gas stations (Carrefour, Intermarché) tend to be cheaper than petroleum brands (Total, Shell), and they tend to have automatic machines working with credit cards at all times.
It may be difficult to find open gas stations at night or on Sundays in rural areas, though a good method is to look for a supermarket, who almost always have some pumps working with credit/debit cards 24×7. Supermarket chains such as Intermarché have a wide presence in the countryside. If you have a GPS device, you can load into it maps of gas stations and supermarkets available on the Internet.
On autoroutes, gas stations are found in service areas (aires de services). They tend to be more expensive than gas stations outside autoroutes, but many of them are open on a 24x7 basis.Brands
Elf becomes a self-service station on Sundays, and accepts only chip-enabled credit cards.
Total works 7 days a week with cash desk always working, and accept chip-less credit cards as well. But it is more expansive than other stations.
Esso is an Exxon's brand. You can find a lot of "Esso Express" in many cities, working 24x7 and accepts only credit cards.
Shell can be found mainly on Autoroutes (Motorways).
BP stations are fairly common in the Paris region, although less so elsewhere.
Some gas stations also dispense liquefied petroleum gas (gas de pétrole liquéfié or GPL), but these are often difficult to find outside of major highways. Indoor parking is prohibited for LPG cars without a safety valve.
As in many other countries, roads and streets in cities tend to be jammed at hours where most people commute to and from work. In addition, roads leading to and from tourist destinations will tend to be jammed at the beginning and end of vacations. This is for instance the case of the A6 motorway in the Rhône Valley (with all the vacationers from Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. going south).
Needless to say, if your destination is not Paris, give it a wide berth: there are now many ways of avoiding the capital (for instance the A4 motorway) and its extremely congested traffic.
Check for jamming conditions and other issues on major roads at Bison Futé.
The following are some simple final points that should be taken into consideration when driving in France:
- You must be at least 18 years of age and possess a valid driving licence from your home country. (There is a French system called conduite accompagnée whereas young drivers aged 16 and above can drive with an older adult, but it most probably does not work for nonresidents.)
- It is very important that you stop at STOP signs or you may receive a spot fine. The same holds for red traffic lights.
- Respect posted speed limits; do not drive if you have had too many drinks. Strong-arm tactics (large number of speed detectors and strict punishment of alcohol-related infractions) has successfully reduced road casualties in France (-55% for deaths and number of accidents between 1986 and 2006) and is likely to go on.
- Driving in major cities such as Paris, Marseille, and Lyon is not generally recommended, as they can be difficult to navigate around and parking is nearly impossible. You would be better off parking in the suburban areas and using public transport to get in the city centre. Many motorists do not pay the required fee when parking, and this has resulted in a dramatic rise in clamping. Parking in restricted areas will often result in being towed.