Driving in France can be a leisurely experience. Autoroutes are well maintained, and there are ample service-oriented rest areas along major highways; smaller roads wind through scenic landscapes and quaint villages. An International Driver's Permit isn’t required, but it can prove useful in emergencies—particularly when a foreign language is involved (check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain one at nominal cost). Drivers in France must be over 18 years old; however, there is no top age limit, provided your faculties are intact. If you're driving from the United Kingdom to the Continent, you have a choice of ferry services or the Channel Tunnel (aka the Chunnel) via the Eurotunnel Shuttle. Reservations are essential at peak times.
Gas is expensive, especially on expressways and in rural areas. The main types of gas available are essence super (leaded), sans plomb (unleaded), and gazole (diesel), so make sure you know what type your car takes. When possible, buy gas before you get on the expressway and keep an eye on pump prices as you go. These vary—anywhere from €1.10 to €2 per liter. The cheapest gas can be found at hypermarchés (large supermarkets). In rural areas it's possible to drive for miles without passing a gas station, so don't let your tank get too low.
Parking is a nightmare in Paris and many other metropolitan areas. "Pay and display" metered parking is usually limited to two hours in city centers. Parking is free on Sunday, national holidays, and after 7 pm. In residential areas, parking meters showing a dense yellow circle indicate a free parking zone during the month of August. In smaller towns, parking may be permitted on one side of the street only—alternating every two weeks—so pay attention to signs. In France, illegally parked cars are likely to be impounded, especially those blocking entrances or fire exits. Parking tickets start at €17, topping out at €175 in a handicapped zone for a first offense, and there's no shortage of blue-uniformed parking police. Parking lots, indicated by a blue sign with a white "P," are usually underground and generally expensive.
Metropolitan France has 11,465 km (7,124 miles) of expressways and 1,054,092 km (654,982 miles) of main roads. For the fastest route between two points, look for roads marked autoroute. A péage (toll) must be paid on most expressways: the rate varies but can be steep. The N (route nationale) roads—which are sometimes divided highways—and D (route départementale) roads are usually also wide and fast.
There are excellent links between Paris and most French cities, but poor ones between the provinces (the principal exceptions are A26 from Calais to Reims, A62 between Bordeaux and Toulouse, and A9/A8 the length of the Mediterranean coast).
Though routes are numbered, the French generally guide themselves from city to city and town to town by destination name. When reading a map, keep one eye on the next big city toward your destination as well as the next small town; most snap decisions will have to be based on town names, not road numbers. Look for signage pointing you in the right direction; this is especially useful in roundabouts, which can be rather confusing.
All highways also have special phones you can use in the event of a roadside emergency; you’ll see them every few kilometers—just pick up the bright orange phone and dial the free number (112). If you have car trouble anywhere else, find the nearest garage or contact the police. No matter where you are, make sure to turn on your hazard lights. Note that each rental car should also be equipped with a mandatory high-visibility vest and a warning triangle.
Rules of the Road
The general rule is to drive on the right and yield to drivers coming from streets to the right; however, this does not necessarily apply at traffic circles, where you should watch out for just about everyone. Do not expect to find traffic lights in the center of the road, as French lights are usually on the right- and left-hand sides; and do not make right turns at red lights unless you have a blinking arrow. Do not use a cell phone—or even a hands-free headset—while driving; it’s illegal and could incur a €135 fine. But do make sure to buckle up; seat belts are mandatory for all passengers, and those under age 12 must be in the backseat.
Speed limits are designated by the type of road you're driving on: 130 kph (80 mph) or 110 kph (70 mph) on expressways (autoroutes); 90 kph (55 mph) on divided roads (routes nationales), which could soon be reduced to 80 kph (50 mph); 50 kph (30 mph) on departmental roads (routes); and 35 kph (22 mph) in some cities and towns (villes et villages). Drivers are expected to know these limits, so signs are usually posted only when there are exceptions to these rules. French drivers break speed limits all the time, and police dish out on-the-spot fines with equal abandon. So don't feel pressure from Jean-Pierre honking behind you to speed up: in addition to the 2,173 fixed speed cameras across the country, there are now 150 unmarked police vehicles that can flash a car in either direction. Within the first 15 months of operation, some 270,000 speeding tickets were issued.
You might be asked by the Police National to pull over at busy intersections. You will have to show your papers (papiers)—including car insurance—and may be submitted to a l'éthylotest (Breathalyzer test). The rules in France have become stringent because of the high incidence of accidents on the roads; anything above a 0.05% blood alcohol level—which, according to your size, could simply mean two or three glasses of wine—and you are over the limit. For new drivers, having passed their test within three years, the limit is only 0.02%.
Some important traffic terms and signs to note: sortie (exit); sens unique (one-way); stationnement interdite (no parking); and impasse (dead end). Blue rectangular signs indicate a highway; green rectangular signs indicate a major direction; triangles carry illustrations of a particular traffic hazard; speed limits are indicated in a circle with the maximum limit circled in red. If you see a red triangle with an "X" or with a line through a straight arrow, be careful to give priority to the next right, even if it doesn't seem like a main road: in these cases, you do not have the right of way.