Are the French really bad drivers?

Many tourists or expats who have had experience of driving in France would probably admit to having cursed the actions of French drivers at some point or another. A new survey suggests they may have good reason to do so.

Are the French really bad drivers?
File photo: Frédéric Bisson

Whether it’s not stopping at traffic lights or overtaking on the wrong side, a new survey this week revealed more and more French drivers are not respecting the rules of the road.

According to the conclusions of a survey by TNS Sofres for Axa Insurance, four out of ten French drivers are "bad" ones.

BFMTV points out the survey shows the French are becoming more and more “undisciplined” at the wheel, after 60 percent of those polled revealed they did not respect the rules.

It’s a conclusion that is fiercely disputed by Pierre Chasseray, president of French drivers' group “40 millions d’automobilistes”.

“The French are sensible drivers. They don’t want to die on the road or cause an accident that kills someone,” Chasseray told The Local.

“Overall the French respect the rules but obviously from time to time people don’t.”

The survey suggests the problem may be more serious than that.

Of those asked, 45 percent admitted they don’t stop at a traffic light when it is on orange, and 45 percent also admit they break the speed limit when driving in towns.

For those who might complain that drivers in France do not indicate when overtaking or turning, they might well be right, as the survey revealed one out of two drivers don’t bother doing it.

Perhaps even more worryingly, although 77 percent of drivers consider drink driving dangerous, as many as 26 percent admit to having done it.

France has made efforts to tackle drink driving in recent years, the latest measure being a requirement to keep a breathalyzer kit in all cars. The Axa survey, however, revealed only 9 percent of drivers actually carry one, though this may in part be linked to confusion over the law.

Using a mobile phone at the wheel appears to be becoming more of an accepted habit for French drivers, with 76 percent of respondents believing it is dangerous, compared to 90 percent last year.

The survey, however, may not reveal the full story of French drivers. For despite the “incivilities” and disobeying of the rules, the number of deaths on French roads dropped by 7 percent last year.

“This is the only statistic that matters,” Chasseray said. “The only real rule of the road is to keep your eyes open, be aware and make sure there are no accidents.”

What is your experience of driving in France? Let us know in the comments section below.

Member comments

  1. As a US citizen who has driven extensively in France’s major cities and throughout the country’s alluring countryside, I’ve found French drivers to be quite respectful and rather patient. I am far more wary and mistrustful of drivers in the US and feel much safer driving in Paris than I ever do in any urban American environment.

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Reader question: Can I buy or sell a car in France if I have a foreign driving licence?

You can drive in France for a certain amount of time with some foreign driving licences. But can you buy or sell a car with one and what other documents do you need?

Reader question: Can I buy or sell a car in France if I have a foreign driving licence?

Let’s start with the good news: a driving licence is not among the list of official documents needed to buy or sell a car in France – just to drive one.

But it’s likely that are asked to provide one when you buy a car.

In that case does what happens if you have a foreign rather than French licence?

We know by reading certain Facebook posts that this question often arises and some people have reported that they were wrongly asked for their French driving licence when buying a car and told that a UK licence, for example, wasn’t acceptable. 

Not having a French driver’s licence should not stop you from being able to buy a car in France.

Kim Cranstoun who runs the Facebook group ‘Applying for a French Driving Licence’ told The Local: “It’s a dealer issue, they have it fixed in their mind that you have to have a French licence mainly because they don’t understand the new agreement and the last thing they read was a UK licence was only valid until the end of 2021.

“As long as you have a valid UK licence you can purchase a car in France. Anyone going into a dealer with a valid UK licence should carry a copy of the agreement,” she said.

Interestingly a driving licence is not on the list of official documents you need to buy a car (see below) but dealer’s will often ask for it if they take charge of registering the car.

What does the seller need?

The seller is responsible for providing the car registration document, called the certificat d’immatriculation and known informally as the Carte Grise.

You must sign a certificat de cession (transfer certificate) along with the buyer, and then declare the sale on the ANTS website within 15 days. 

You should then receive a code de cession (transfer code) which you must also send to the buyer so they can register the vehicle in their name.

If the vehicle is second-hand and more than four-years old, the seller should also provide a recent roadworthiness certificate, proving that the vehicle has passed a contrôle technique (similar to an MoT in the UK), in the past six months.

What does the buyer need?

When you buy a car, you must sign a certificat de cession (transfer certificate) along with the previous owner, who has to declare the sale on the ANTS website within 15 days. 

The seller should then receive a code de cession (transfer code) which they must send you because you will need this to register the vehicle in your name. There is a fee, which usually falls to the buyer to pay for transferring a vehicle registration – which varies depending on the region, type of car, and its CO2 emissions. 

The previous certificat d’immatriculation (registration certificate – aka carte grise) needs to be struck through, and completed with the date of the sale and the seller’s signature.

You will then need to register the car in your name, which can be done online. You have one month to do this, otherwise you risk a fine of up to €750. 

If you are purchasing the car through a dealer, this transfer of registration will be done at the time of the purchase. Be aware, a dealer may ask for your driving licence as part of the process, but – as long as you hold a valid licence, whether it is French or not, you will still be able to go through with your purchase.

In fact, you can ask any certified garage to apply for the carte grise on your behalf, which could save on time and hassle, even if you didn’t buy the car from them.

When applying for a carte grise you will need to submit proof that the vehicle has undergone a contrôle technique (vehicle safety check) within the previous six months if the car is at least four years old.

To register the vehicle, you need the following official documents:

  • Identification (passport or identity card)

  • Proof of residence (typically a utility bill or rental receipt, less than six months old).

  • A copy of the Certificat d’immatriculation/Carte Grise with the appropriate section filled in.

  • The contrôle technique (CT) certificate, if required.

Buying a car with a loan

If you have the funds to buy the vehicle outright, you’ll have no problems – simply hand over the cheque at the appropriate time. It may be harder, however, to access financing for your vehicle if you’re not permanently resident in France.

Driving your new vehicle

If you plan to drive your car away that day, you will also be asked for a copy of a valid insurance certificate for the vehicle – in France, the vehicle is insured rather than the driver. 

Most car insurance companies will provide a provisional certificate to allow you to drive your new purchase. You will then need to finalise details and provide them with a copy of the Carte Grise when it arrives.

Driving licence

If you live permanently in France, sooner or later you may need to swap your driving licence for a French one – but where you learned to drive in the first place could dictate whether you have to take a French driving test. We cover that in depth here – including what’s changed for Britons in France after Brexit.

You can buy some vehicles – known as voitures sans permis – and drive them on some French roads without having a driving licence. Anyone born after 1988 must, however, hold a Brevet de sécurité routière, which has a 15-year limit, and the vehicles are speed limited and can only travel on certain routes.