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DRIVING

Driving in France: How France’s Crit’Air vehicle sticker system is taking over the country

With heatwaves, pollution spikes and pressure to reduce emissions more and more towns and cities across France are imposing driving restrictions on vehicles using the Crit'Air sticker system. Here's what you need to know about them and if you need to get one.

Driving in France: How France's Crit'Air vehicle sticker system is taking over the country
A high Crit'Air sticker number means a vehicle is highly polluting. Photo: AFP

The Crit'Air system was introduced in 2017 and assigns a number to each vehicle based on how much they pollute. Importantly the system applies for all vehicles not just French registered ones.

But the Crit'Air system hasn't just been rolled out so drivers get to put a new sticker on their windscreens. It is aimed at reducing emissions in towns and cities, especially those prone to spikes in air-pollution such as Paris. 

During pollution spikes authorities in French towns impose what is called circulation différéncié meaning the most polluting vehicles (those with the higher Crit'Air numbers) are not allowed on the roads. 

So in the recent heatwave, vehicles with Crit'Air number 3 and above were banned from inside the A86 outer ring-road in Paris.

Importantly a new law has given local authorities extra powers to impose restrictions under circulation différéncié – and more and more of them are taking up the offer.

But the Crit'Air system isn't just enforced to help cut emissions during a heatwave. Certain cities like Paris, Grenoble and Strasbourg already have permanent restrictions imposed on an geographical areas called zones à circulation restreinte or zones à faibles emissions (ZEF) or low emissions zones.

From July 1st 2019 all vehicles with a Crit'Air 4 or 5 sticker were banned from Paris city centre between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Over the coming years restrictions will get tighter so cars with Crit'Air stickers numbering 3 and then 2 will steadily be be banned from the city on weekdays. The same will apply to the outer suburbs in Paris where currently only vehicles with Crit'Air stickers number 5 are banned.

Grenoble has also imposed restrictions on the city centre and various suburbs meaning vehicles with Crit'Air 4 and 5 stickers are no longer allowed on weekdays. From 2022 those restrictions will also apply to Crit'Air 3 vehicles.

And most major cities and big towns in the country are in the process of and intending to roll out their own permanent low emission zones over the coming years, meaning the Crit'Air system will be in permanent use.

So do I need a sticker?

There isn't really a simple answer to this as it depends on where you're going in France and if that area is prone to spikes in pollution, especially at the time you are there.

But it would make a lot of sense to get one given so many cities and areas require vehicles to have the Crit'Air stickers on their vehicles even if permanent restrictions are not in place.

The cities where Crit'Air stickers are now obligatory are Paris, Grenoble, Lille, Bordeaux, Rennes, Strasbourg, Toulouse, and Marseille so you will definitely need one if you are going there. 

However an increasing number of places are taking the opportunity to enforce circulation differenciée in a certain designated environmental zones, which means they can impose restrictions in case of high pollution levels – most commonly in the summer. 

Many other places have declared environmental zones, which means that although for most of the year no restrictions are in place, you will still need a sticker to drive there.

The zones are départment wide in some areas. See map below

  • ZPA d’Angers
  • ZPA d’Annecy 
  • ZPA d’Auch 
  • ZPA de Chambery 
  • ZPA de Clermont-Ferrand 
  • ZPA de Dijon
  • ZPA de La Roche-sur-Yon
  • ZPA de Montpellier 
  • ZPA de Niort 
  • ZPA d’Orléans
  • ZPA de Pau
  • ZPA de Poitiers
  • ZPA de Valence
  • ZPA de Chartres
  • ZPA de Guéret
  • ZPA de la Vallée de l’Arve

 

A full list of France's environmental zones.

What happens if I get caught without one in a designated zone?

You face a fine of €68 although in certain areas police are treating motorists lightly and educating them about the system rather than emptying their wallets, so you may escape with just a stern telling off.

The sticker has your registration number on it, so you cannot swap them between vehicles and if you get a new car you will have to get a new sticker.

The stickers needs to be ordered in advance, so if you come to France without one and end up in a restricted zone you could be in trouble.

They're cheap and easy to obtain (see below) so we would say it's better to be safe than sorry.

And if I get caught driving a car that is part of the restrictions?

If you're driving a car than is banned from a city under permanent or temporary restrictions then you face a €68 fine and it's unlikely the police will let you off with a warning.

What do the stickers mean again?

The sticker corresponds with how polluting your vehicle is. Electric and hybrid cars get a special green sticker with a zero, petrol or diesel vehicles get a number from 1 to 5. The level is automatically assigned based on the age of your car and the registration details you give, which allows the system to assign you a number based on the manufacturer's specifications.

 

 

How do I get one?

Surprisingly for a French bureaucratic task, the process is pretty simple. Head to the government site here and fill out the form (in English). You will need your vehicle registration documents to hand as you need your vehicle identification number as well as registration number and you also need upload an image of your vehicle registration documents.

Once the form is completed the sticker will be sent to you in the post. It usually takes a week but at peak times it can be longer. The total price, including postage, is €3.62 if you're in France or €4.41 if not.

 

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DRIVING

8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Taking a roadtrip through France is always a popular holiday option, but make sure that you're ready to take to the French roads.

8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Black weekends – as with all countries, France has certain weekends when the roads are likely to be especially busy. These generally coincide with school holidays, public holidays and opportunities to ‘faire le pont‘ – as well as the traditional ‘crossover’ weekend when the July travellers return and the August travellers set out.

There is a helpful traffic forecasting website called Bison futéfind it here – which publishes a calendar of days that are likely to be especially busy on the roads. Avoid red and black days if possible.

Fuel prices

It seems likely that fuel prices will remain high around Europe this summer, and France is no exception despite the government fuel rebate of 18 cents per litre.

The government publishes an interactive map of fuel stations and the prices they charge, so if possible you can plan your journey to fill up in the cheapest area.

MAP Where to find the cheapest fuel in France

Crit’Air stickers – if you plan on driving into or through a city, check whether a Crit’Air sticker is required for your vehicle. Initially the province of the big cities, more and more towns now require these. 

The sticker gives your vehicle a rating based on the emissions is produces, vehicles that get the highest ratings of 3, 4 or 5 are banned outright from some cities, while other cities limit their movement in days when air pollution is particularly bad.

The sticker costs less than €5 but must be ordered online in advance of your trip – here’s how.

Yellow vest – yellow vests in France are not just for demonstrators, they form part of the kit that you are legally obliged to have in your car. A red warning triangle and a high-vis yellow jacket must be carried with you at all times, although it is no longer compulsory to carry a breathalyser.

If you’re coming from the UK your UK driving licence is enough – there is no need for an International Driver’s Permit – but check that your insurance covers trips to France. Insurance ‘green cards’ are not required. 

Péages – if you’re driving on autoroutes you will likely need to pay, as most sections of the French highway are covered by tolls. When driving you will see warning signs that the péage (toll booth) is coming up and that is your signal to get your money ready.

The cost varies depending on which road you are on and how far you drive.

Usually you take a ticket at the first toll booth and then when you exit that section of road you drive through another station where you pay. The pay stations take either cash or debit cards – some but not all allow contactless card payments – and as you approach the pay station you will see signs with either a coin or a card on them, to ensure you’re in the right lane for your payment type.

Naturally the pay stations are on the left of the vehicle. If you’re driving a right-hand drive car and don’t have a passenger this can be a little awkward, so there is an option to buy a pre-paid radar device – known as télépéage – that allows you to drive straight through the péage.

Speed limits and alcohol – obviously you will need to keep an eye out for speed limits (which are of course in km/h not mimes per hour) but if you’re on the autoroute there are two different limits – 130km/h for fine weather and 110 km/h for bad weather.

As well as police officers doing speed checks, also keep an eye out for radars (speed cameras) which sit at the side of the road and are usually grey.

If you’re in certain parts of rural France you might think that drink-driving laws don’t apply in France, since unfortunately there is still a culture of drinking and driving in some areas.

In fact, however, France has strict limits on drinking and driving and they may be lower than you are used to. If you are stopped and breathalysed you face losing your licence and saying ‘well everyone else in the café had two glasses of wine and then drove’ is not a legal defence.

READ ALSO Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive laws?  

Fake police – Speaking of police, it is an unfortunate fact that every summer, some tourists fall victim to scammers who pretend to be police offices and demand cash for ‘fines’.

Real French police officers do stop drivers – either if they have been speeding or committed another driving offence or simply for a random check – but if you incur a fine you will be given a ticket that you pay later. Genuine police officers will not demand that you hand over money in cash at the roadside.

Priorité à droite – France’s most notorious road law is still in place in certain areas, but not everywhere. The priorité à droite rule (priority to the right) essentially means that you give way to the vehicle that is approaching from the right unless there are road signs or marking in place telling you to do otherwise.

In practice this means that on most major routes and in towns you simply obey the street signs, road markings and traffic lights to determine who has the priority.

It’s really more on smaller, country roads where there are no markings that priorité à droite applies, although it’s also in place on smaller roads in residential areas of cities and on Paris’ famously confusing Arc de Triomphe roundabout (although there are plans afoot to pedestrianise the area around the Arc).

You can read a full explanation of the priorité à droite rule HERE.

. . . and French drivers.

It pains us to peddle a cliché, but a lot of French drivers do live up to their international stereotype of being terrible drivers. Not all, of course, but certainly don’t assume that your fellow drivers will give way or let you join a queue of traffic. Also just because a vehicle isn’t indicating, that does not mean that it’s not just about to turn. Also, for the American readers out there – though automatic cars do exist in France, they are typically more expensive to rent and stick shifts tend to be the norm in France. 

Bonne route!

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