Le Permis de Conduire – The French Driver’s License

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The time came when I had to face up to getting a French Driver’s License — le Permis de Conduire. It was a surprisingly challenging project. One that, after I’ve recounted it for you, I plan on expunging from my memory.

Here’s why and how. It is a (detailed) cautionary tale! It all started in April and didn’t finish until October.

The Why

When we bought our car in France, and when we bought our auto insurance, our US driver’s licenses were sufficient. But our latest insurance agent highly recommended that we get French driver’s licenses; there may be situations where we wouldn’t be covered completely with a foreign driver’s license.

Curiously, there is no overall agreement between the US and France about driver’s licenses. Individual American states have their own accords with France. If your driver’s license is from one of the states with a reciprocal agreement, you can get a French driver’s license just by showing your US one. Alas, Hawaii is not one of these states. This means that for us to get French driver’s licenses, we have to take the same tests that French 17-year-olds do.

no passing

Somehow, it seems that all our expat American friends around here come from states that have the reciprocal relationships. All the English and Irish, thanks to the EU, don’t have to do anything either. (Just wait for the realization for the British after Brexit!) Even apparently Bahrainis don’t have to take any tests; we met one at a dinner party. I googled the question and learned that at least 128 countries other than the US have driver’s license agreements with France. These nice people from all around the world happily drive around with their French driver’s licenses without any of the angst that we are experiencing. Nor any detailed knowledge of the local laws.

Scare me

can’t drive here

Early in our time in France, we both read the books On Rue Tatin and Tarte Tatin by Susan Herrmann Loomis. She tells great and often amusing stories about her finding her way in France. In one of them, she recounts her experience getting her French driver’s license. She wrote about the cost, the difficult theoretical test, and her taciturn driving instructors who judged her driving ability sorely in need of correction. Ultimately, she succeeded. Her recounting made us both want to avoid this process at all costs.

In French towns, you see on almost every street a pharmacy, a hair salon and a driving school: the Auto École. All three are big business, woven into French life. We have learned that it costs, on average, 1500€ to get your license. 1500€!! Most of this cost is for the Auto École, especially the required 20 hours of in-car instruction. (During the recent Gilets Jaunes — Yellow Vests — demonstrations and political turmoil, a central theme has been the high-cost of living relative to income for very many French people. A detail in the conflict is this Auto École cost. The government is working to reduce the costs by 30%. The Auto École industry is resisting! They claim that lives on the roads are at stake if they don’t pay their — oh sorry — play their part.)

High cost. Hard and mysterious tests. In French! 

But, now, no more avoidance was possible. I decided, over-confidently, to take on the challenge. I could learn some driving-related French vocabulary. I could feel even more embedded in French society. (Mike said, good, you first!)

right has priority

Back in our first months in France, we received two traffic tickets in ways and places that were mysterious to us. That shock inspired us to buy the 2017 Code de la Route, which is the book of the rules of the road. (Here’s the blog post from that time.) Now it was 2019, so I needed to buy the revised Code de la Route. In our nice bookstore in the center of Carcassonne, I brought the 2019 edition to the checkout. The young woman at the counter commented on my choice. I explained what I was going to do. She sighed and said that if she had to take the tests again, she would quit driving. The experience was awful, she said. I’m thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”

But I’m pretty good at staying optimistic. I was always a very good test-taker back in the day (which was, admittedly, quite a while ago). Surely, I could rise to this challenge.

A week or so later, Mike and I were having dinner with two close French friends. They are in their mid-40s. Mostly just for a spark for conversation, I told them my decision. I expected that they would laugh, give me some grief, and tell a story or two. Instead, both of their faces lost their color, they looked down, and were quiet. After a little prodding, they both said that the driver’s license test was horrible, and that they’d never want to do it again. It is full of traps and tricks. Oh my.

The How, Part 1

However, I had already signed up at an Auto École that a British friend recommended. (She said it wasn’t bad.)  When I went into the school office, the woman behind the counter was relaxed and friendly. She explained the costs. Given my age and that I’ve had a US driver’s license for 40 years, she said that I would probably only need about three hours behind the wheel with an instructor. That certainly would bring the cost of this process down.

But the first step was to take l’Épreuve Théorique — the theoretical test, the written part. The second step would be the practical test — the behind-the-wheel part. I showed her the Code de la Route book that I had bought. She said, “Oh no, not that one. You should use this one,” which was from a national company with which the school is affiliated. Along with the book came access to online learning tools and 120 sample tests. The school offers classroom sessions as well. I wasn’t enamored of spending hours in a classroom with 17-year-olds, so I planned on studying at home.

During a trip of 400 km at night on the autoroute, a driver sleeps on average while driving:

I studied the Code de la Route book. I flagged all the words and expressions I didn’t understand, and put them in a flashcard app. (Le dos d’âne — the back of an ass — is a speed bump. Un coup de lapin — a punch of a rabbit — is whiplash.) I made notes in my notebook. I gave myself little tests to make sure I knew what all the signs meant. (A yellow diamond, without any words, means you have the right of way until otherwise notified.) I gently reviewed the list of infractions and their penalties.

At last, I thought I was ready to try the online tools, which are based on the actual test. The Code de la Route is comprised of categories that you’d expect, such as On the Road, The Driver, The Road, Other Users, Using the Car, Getting In and Out of the Car, Administration, and Safety of the Passengers and the Car; as well as First Aid, The Car’s Systems and Equipment, and The Environment. The online tools start with sample questions in each of these categories.

Optimistically but also nervously, I jumped in. Crash. I hit three categories of stubborn surprises:

1 The level of detail in these questions bowled me over. How much time does it take for the alcohol in one glass of wine to leave your system? If you have a person under 18 years old in the back seat without a fastened seat belt, who loses points and/or gets a fine, how many points, how much fine? How many meters do your normal headlights shine, and how many do your high beams?

To drive, the vertical field of vision must be:

2 How they structure the questions. (Meaning how they try to trap you!) One trap is in the wording. For example, the difference between “I can” and “I must”. Consider the situation where you are on the autoroute, in an area where the road stripes are yellow (meaning temporary) because there is construction, and traffic has been restricted to one lane. In this situation, the speed limit, whether explicitly marked or not, is 90 kph. The question might be “How fast can I drive in this situation?” The available answers might be: A – 70 kph; B – 80 kph; C – 90 kph; D – 110 kph. It is so easy to jump to the conclusion that the question is about the speed limit. But because the question is “How fast CAN you go…,” the answer is A, B and C. You can always drive slower than the speed limit (with some exceptions, of course! There are always exceptions).

I increase the security distance: – in case number 1; – in case number 2
In case 1, we are too close to the car in front. In case 2, the car behind us is too close to us: How can we possibly increase the distance without speeding? Ugh.

3 Video questions. You have to watch a video from the perspective of the driver, usually on a street in a town or city. You don’t know what the nature of the question will be, so you have to look at every detail as you pass. I always mutter to myself as the video progresses: “In a town. 50 kph limit. Bus lane. Priority to the right. I’m going 46 kph. Oh, baby carriage ahead…” There are the ones that are obvious, such as speed limit signs, markings on the pavement, pedestrians and cyclists. One of the tricky ones is about blind spots. During the video drive, a motorcyclist is briefly visible in the right-side rear-view mirror. There is oncoming traffic, other cars visible in the left-side and center rear-view mirrors, there is a bus lane, we just passed a tram stop, and we are in a 30-mph zone. Then the video freezes, there is a bus stop up ahead, a car to the left perhaps in a turning lane, and the motorcyclist is nowhere to be seen. The question relates to turning right. Which of course you can’t do until the motorcyclist reappears and presumably passes by. It all makes sense, but whew! Which detail will be the crucial one? Rather different from the real world where you see in 3D and have much more context.

Traffic accidents in towns and cities include:
A – a quarter of deaths; B – a third of deaths; C – half of deaths

There are a total of 40 questions on the test. You have to get at least 35 right. 87.5%! The more I took the practice tests at home, my scores started to hover around 35. Some times above, some times below. I took all 120 sample tests in the Auto École system, getting despondent as I couldn’t get the results consistently in the green territory. I discovered that that first Code de la Route book that I had bought included even more practice exams. They turned out to be almost completely different. More despondency! Once I’d adapted to those questions, and taken all the tests, I just had to stop. I took a huge breath, and booked my exam session.

The exam location was in a test center in the main post office building in the center of Carcassonne. The morning of the exam, I sat at a café in the town square, sipped a glass of juice (I certainly didn’t need any caffeine), and reviewed some of the facts and figures that would likely show up on the test. I worked on my even breathing. I visualized 40 green correct answers. I used all the tricks I could think of from a career’s worth of tense challenges. I was amazed just how nervous and tightly wound I had let myself get. Keep breathing.

A – I keep my speed; B – I accelerate
“I don’t accelerate!”

Ultimately, there were three others who would take the test this morning, all significantly younger than I. We all had to stand around outside the building while the monitor waited for everyone scheduled to arrive. A father and teen-aged daughter turned the corner. She was trying to look confident but was obviously nervous. He dad gave her some encouraging words and a kiss, and watched her join us at the door. I felt pretty old at that moment, which was both good (let all those years of experience pay off) and bad (silly retired American taking the driver’s license test with a bunch of teenagers!).

In the test room, we each sat in front of an iPad. The monitor explained that every test would be different; the questions are generated randomly by the system. We would receive our results in a day or two by email. Then she gently commented that, in case we didn’t pass, we were welcome to make another appointment any time we wanted. She looked kind and sad all at once. I’m sure we all were thinking: 35 / 40.

The sign warns of danger:
– starting in 150 meters: A – Yes, B – No
– extending for 600 meters: A – Yes, B – No

Usually triangular warning signs announce a danger in 150 meters; but not always!

The tests began. The room was loud with silent concentration. A trick question with “can” and “must” showed up. A video on a country road at night showed up. A question about blood-alcohol content showed up. And on and on. 

And then it was over. We all stood up, said our au revoir’s, and got out of there as quickly as possible. I felt like I did OK, even if I knew I’d need to change my shirt when I got home.

The next day, a delightful concise email announced, “Notice: Favorable.” Wine to celebrate! (But not before driving.)

The How, Part 2

Not done yet. The last chapter in this saga was the behind-the-wheel part, l’Épreuve Pratique.

Over the last few weeks of this delightful process, I spent 4 hours with two different driving instructors. It was hard not to feel like a clueless adolescent again. All the instructors’ comments and directions just made me nervous. But I think his notes helped me be a better driver, mostly in how I use the manual transmission. 

you don’t have the right-of-way any more

For one of my hours, my instructor was, I learned later, one of the owners of the Auto École. He seemed very amused to have me in the car. He was convinced that since I am American, I only knew how to drive automatic transmissions. He happily jumped into detailed instructions about exactly where to put my foot when I’m not changing gears; how to downshift without spending any time out-of-gear when approaching a roundabout; and how to change gears gently. He kept saying, “Zen!” I don’t know about you, but after years of driving, even manual transmission, I just know without thinking about it what to do with both feet and both hands. Then when the instructor tells me to do things differently, and I have to think about what I’m doing, all the coordination disappears. On top of that, having the instructor correcting every move, every turn of the head, every gear shift just made it worse.

The practical test includes one of these three maneuvers: three-point turn, parallel parking, and backing into a perpendicular parking space. I’ve always been able to parallel park without much trouble. I park in the supermarket parking lot all the time, sometimes backing into the space. The first time the instructor asked me to back into a perpendicular space, it took me a few maneuvers. Part of the challenge is the cardinal rule of keeping both hands on the wheel at ALL times. At ALL TIMES! Exasperated, the instructor transferred control of the car to his side. He then proceeded to back the car into the space in one neat arc, from the passenger seat, with one hand on the wheel. (ONE hand!) See, easy!

I spent a few hours on numerous Sundays driving around town, working to unlearn my bad habits and learn these new ones. At least on Sunday, there were fewer other cars to distract me — and for me to threaten. There is one district in Carcassonne with straight narrow streets with parallel parking on one side of each street. On the quiet Sunday afternoons, I parallel parked and parallel parked and thought about it so much I couldn’t do it! I have to admit that I consulted YouTube to see what I was doing wrong. The more I thought about it, the worse it got, at least for a while. All very humbling.
After four separate hours with the instructors, they thought, why not, let him take the test.

the other way has priority

The instructor from the driving school warned me that my examiner is known as Monsieur Contrôle. Contrôle is the word for checking something; in this case, for checking in the three rear-view mirrors. To do this right, you have to look in all the mirrors all the time, especially just before a turn of any kind. And, you have to turn your head to check the mirrors, not just your eyeballs. So, dutifully, I bobbed my head all through the exam. 

At one point, I made a left turn at an intersection with a left-turn traffic light. The examiner chastised me for not making a wide-enough arc on the turn. Then he kept taking me to places to make left turns. Fortunately, I caught on. After the test, the instructor said that he worried that my left turns would make me fail the test, but that he hoped that my improvement would get me through.

After the instructor had driven the young woman and me back to the Auto École, I had a chance to ask him what he thinks of all the French drivers who don’t seem to respect the rules very much. There are lots of people who tail-gate, who speed, who don’t use turn signals, who park on the wrong sides of the street, and who, in general, just seem to do what they want when they want. The instructor’s response was that it gets to him (he gestured with a fist against his heart). But then sheepishly he admitted that he likes to speed on the country roads. 

this one I understand

The day after the exam, I received word that, at very long last, I was granted my French drivers license. A couple weeks later I received the laminated actual license, good until 2034! My photo looks just as unattractive and angry as it is supposed to.


I know that all this is just for a drivers license, which is not the biggest thing in the world. But the process was harder than I ever expected. Perhaps since my life context now is so much calmer than what it used to be, the tension and pressure felt proportionally much more intense!

Mike, cynically, says that now I can drive like French people. He means that I can ignore all the rules and do what I want.

Article from La Dépêche du Midi

More and more French people are driving without a license.  A finding that worries the authorities, since today, there are approximately 700,000 driving without being authorized to do so.  This phenomenon is accelerating, especially among young people, and which poses many questions for public safety.

The French authorities are faced with an invisible problem: drivers without a license.  Today, almost 700,000 of them take to the road, among other motorists.  The figure may seem worrying, and for good reason: it has more than doubled in the last ten years.  This group is not homogeneous, it brings together around 33% of motorists, while 59% concern motorcycles.  As Christophe Ramond, director of studies for the Road Safety Association recalls: “Driving without a license therefore concerns 1.7% of motorists, but is more strongly represented among young people between the ages of 18 and 24.”

Few, but dangerous

That is not so many drivers without a license, compared to the 39 million French motorists.  However, they are involved in 4.6% of fatal incidents, a growing phenomenon, often correlated to hit and run or vehicles without insurance.  That these drivers are involved, it is often due to a lack of training.  But this is not the only explanation, since many of them attended a driving school.  About 200,000 outlawed drivers used to have their licenses, which they lost after a major offense. Or to a lesser extent, after gradually losing points as a result of smaller infractions such as repeated speeding.  “In 2017, around 120 people lost their license point by point,” said Emmanuel Barbe, interministerial delegate for road safety.  Driving without a license costs a lot: since April 2017, driving without a license can be punished with a fixed fine of 800€ without going before a judge in court.

Driving, a real necessity

If these unlicensed drivers defy the law, it is often because they have no choice.  They need to travel, despite the high cost of learning.  For the two thirds who drive without any training, the first argument put forward is that it costs on average 1,500 euros to get their license.  To combat this, three new measures have been enacted since last week, as part of a driver’s license reform.  The government aims to reduce the price and the time required to obtain a permit.  In addition to the transition from the license to 17 years, the development of hours of learning on a simulator and the reduction of the time between driving an automatic vehicle and a manual vehicle aims to reduce the bill for many young people who don’t have enough income.  Ultimately, the government wants to lower the average cost of the test by 30%, which could allow these drivers to achieve the Holy Grail of their “pink paper”. [The Permis de Conduire card is pink.]

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