Non-EU citizens living in France must exchange their driving license for a French one in order to legally drive in France. The French government announced at the end of last year that this rule would apply to Britons living in France, who would have to swap their licence for a French one before the end of December 2021 – except that no applications for exchanges are currently being accepted because the UK and France have failed to reach a reciprocal agreement.
The French authorities had set up an online portal that replaced paper applications, to make the process easier. But those applying to exchange their licences since January have had their requests systematically rejected by the new French online system.
This has left thousands of British citizens living in France, many of whom are elderly and live in rural areas, without a valid permit because their UK licence has expired. Driving without a valid permit in France can result in a fine of up to €15,000.
Some people’s licences have already expired and have no way of renewing or exchanging them, while others are worried about the increasingly short timeframe for exchange even after an agreement is reached. Others have been waiting for months and years only to have their applications sent back.
To get a scale of the problem, The Local put out a survey for readers to share their successful and unsuccessful experiences, and we were inundated with responses – most of which expressed frustration with an ongoing problem that, after years of Brexit negotiations, remains unresolved.
Marianne Ironside, who lives in the Indre département, was one of dozens of respondents who said they had their paper application returned to them over a year after it was first submitted, along with a letter asking her to apply via the new online system. “They sat on my application for 18 months and then sent it back and told me to reapply online. Because I also have an HGV licence I have to get a medical, and the waiting list meant I couldn’t get one before the January cut off, so I am now in limbo.”
Due to a wave of demands, people were asked not to apply until their license was due to expire, but those who waited just before their expiry date have not been successful either.
“We were told to wait until after Brexit, and then not to use the online system to allow people who only had 3 months until expiry to get their licence exchange. Now the online application system is closed,” said Sharon Rees-Williams, who lives in Villefranche du Perigord in the Dordogne. “We are really worried. The shops are 30 mins drive away. We both need to drive for our businesses,” she said of her and her partner.
The situation left many people who live in remote rural areas and whose licences have expired with no legal way of getting around, while elderly residents are unable to get to their medical appointments.
This was the case for Many Ohayon, who lives in Haute Savoie. She was eventually successful in exchanging her licence, but only after a long process involving problems uploading documents to the website, which she was unable to provide after her provisional attestation had expired.
“I was actually in hospital the night it expired, and had no choice but to drive home the next day,” she said. “I was in a grey area of legality and I cannot possibly convey how frustrating and stressful that was along with the communication with the French authorities. I feel so sorry for all those still living that nightmare, particularly those who have passed 70 years old and whose licences are definitely no longer valid.”
Commuters, and people who need a driving licence for their job, have also been left at risk of losing their jobs.
“I applied when I could, sent all the relevant paperwork but still no licence, and therefore I am not currently in possession of a valid licence to do my job or drive my car anywhere” said Garry Parker, who drives a school bus in the Dordogne and whose licence expired in February. “I have contacted ANTS many times and they tell me to be patient and that the licence is being processed, but I live in a small, rural commune 8km from the nearest supermarket.”
Several respondents have been caught in a similar limbo. Since first applying for an exchange in 2018, Stuart Orsborn, who lives in the tiny village of Clussais-la-Pommeraie an hour drive south of Poitiers, tried again after he lost his wallet in 2019, but is still waiting. “I’m told I am currently under investigation and have been since December 2020. I have now been without a licence for 22 months!” he said. “I currently drive around with photocopies of emails chasing up my licence and a photocopy of my UK licence.”
While there continues to be no agreement between France and the UK, many Britons in desperate situations like these are left with the only option of having to retake their driving test in France – a long and expensive process that not everyone can afford.
After two failed attempts in 2018 and 2019, James Hollingsworth, who lives in La Tronche, applied for a third time in January, only to discover that the system had been blocked. “It’s infuriating and completely ridiculous,” he said. “Both UK and French driving tests are rigorous and expensive, so the idea that I will need to retake my driving license after driving in France for nearly 10 years is bizarre. “
“It’s also very expensive to take the test in France, and it’s a financial obstacle for us. Both UK and French governments have been hopeless at communicating on this issue, and I’m fed up with their inactivity and lack of information. I feel very stressed out by this, and exasperated.”
The situation has been so long and frustrating, that some respondents said they are even considering going back to the UK if the problem isn’t solved soon. “I applied two years ago but my documentation was returned due to the system going fully automated,” said AJ Tarr from Brittany. “I’m still not able to apply like so many other people. I’m considering going back to the UK. Thank you Mr Johnson.”
John Turner, who also lives in Brittany, is in a similar situation. “I have been informed I can still drive on my UK licence until 31st December 2021. After this if there is no agreement I will have to return to the UK,” he said.