Rules of the Road
French road regulations are similar to those in the rest of Europe, with a few notable exceptions.
These include the infamous priorité à droite, which gives the right of way to motorists joining your forward direction from the right (except if the intersection is restricted by a stop sign, traffic light or solid white line). The exception, of course, are the roundabouts, ronds points, where cars to your left have the right-of-way.
In rural areas, it is very important to be aware of the priorité à droite as it is not uncommon for traffic on minor roads to have the right-of-way when joining main streets and French motorists can be aggressive in protecting their right-of-way.
Here are other rules worth noting as they may differ from those of your home country:
Right turns on a red light are not allowed in any circumstances.; some intersections, however, will free right-hand turn traffic with a yellow or green blinking arrow. If in doubt, wait for the green light.
Traffic signals are usually located on the right-hand side, on the sidewalk, instead of overhead in the middle. Solid white lines demarcating an intersection indicate a stop, even in the absence of a stop sign.
Although many maps pinpoint the location of fixed speed-trap radars, carrying a radar-detection device in your car can be punished with a fine and automatic confiscation.
All passengers in a car must wear safety belts, even in the rear seat. Children under the age of 10 must sit in the backseat unless this is impossible, as in a two-seater vehicle. Children must sit in car-seats until they are physically big enough to use a regular seat-belt.
Talking on a cell phone while driving, even with a hands-free headset, is illegal.
If you are driving a foreign registered vehicle, it must have a sticker showing the country of origin, even if this is indicated on the registration plate.
It is illegal to honk in a French city except in case of imminent collision.
Instead of indicating a road's number (D-76) or direction (East, West, etcetera), road signs usually simply point you to the next community on a given route. You will often seen signs indicating a chain of cities leading from the next village through to the next major city or cities; when reading a map, always look for the name of the next major community on your itinerary as well as road numbers. This takes some getting used to but is actually quite logical; you can easily navigate from Marseille to Lille without ever looking at a map.
The motorways, indicated by signs with blue backgrounds, are almost exclusively toll-roads. In most cases, you'll pay by the kilometre; you pick up a ticket before getting on and pay (in cash or debit card) at the péage when you exit.
On the highway, the French are trained to stay in the right-hand lane except when passing.
A turn-indicator light to French drivers is not a request but indicates an immediate manoeuvre.
Drivers are supposed to use the right turn-indicator to signal leaving a roundabout (although this rule is routinely ignored).
Getting a licence
You can drive with a licence issued by another European Union member state for an unlimited period.
Driving licences issued by a non-EU state are valid only for the first 12 months, and must be exchanged before the end of this period for a French licence or, depending on the country or US state of issue, you may be required to sit for the French driving test, both written and practical.
Residents of the following American states may exchange their license within the first 12 months of arrival: Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Florida or South Carolina.
Everyone else must take the test. Register with your préfecture to apply; although the road rules are the same throughout France, some of the conditions for taking the test may change depending on where you live.
You can study the Code de la Route (check any local bookstore) and take the written test on your own — although be warned, this is not easy, even in English — but for the driving test, most préfectures require you to sign up with a driving school where you can pay by the lesson or a forfait for a series of lessons. There are also several fee-based, online tools that can help you prepare for the written test.
Again, even experienced drivers should know that test administrators have very specific criteria. Prudent or even legal driving is not sufficient; you will be expected to drive the 'French way'.
If you live in Paris, there are several schools that cater to English speakers and you can take the test in English. Outside Paris, you can request a translator from your préfecture, although this may not be possible everywhere. You can also request an automatic transmission car, although again, availability depends on where you live.
Many insurance companies will issue you a policy with a non-EU driving license. But beware: if you have an accident and the company verifies later that you were driving with an invalid license, you may be liable for damages.
French driving licences now include a 12-point penalty system, whereby driving offences are punished, on top of fees, by a reduction in points; if you lose all your points, your license will be suspended. New drivers, including non-EU citizens who have passed the test, only have six points for the first three years.
To obtain and maintain your car registration, the carte grise, from the préfecture, you must pay for an inspection of roadworthiness on vehicles of five years old or more. This contrôle technique is carried out in specially licensed centres and must be renewed every two years or if you sell the car.
You are at all times required to carry the car registration, your driver's license, and the vignette assurance, proof of insurance, must be displayed on your window shield. The French police are entitled to stop you and request your identification and car papers at any time.
You are also required to keep your car papers on your person when you leave the car; if it's stolen with the registration in the glove box, you may have trouble with your insurance claim.
City street parking is almost always regulated by parking metres, horodateurs, which are increasingly (and in Paris, totally) operated by a specific credit card, available at most tabacs.
Pay spaces are usually, but not always, indicated by the word payant on the street or on a sign. Place the ticket face up on the street side of the dashboard so that parking attendants can confirm the timestamp.
In theory, you can only legally park in the direction of traffic for that side of the street, although you may often see parked cars headed the wrong direction.
Urban residents are often able to park on meters within their neighbourhood at reduced rates. Check with your town hall, mairie, for details.