‘I’m 8km from the nearest supermarket’: The Britons in France struggling without driving licences

The issue of British driving licences and Brexit has been complicated and frustrating for many UK citizens living in France. The ongoing impasse over a post-Brexit agreement between the France and the UK has left many British citizens living in France confused, and in some cases without valid driving licence.

'I'm 8km from the nearest supermarket': The Britons in France struggling without driving licences
The lack of an agreement between the UK and France means that no applications for exchanges are currently being accepted. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

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. 

READ ALSO: No end in sight to driving licence woes for Brits in France

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.

READ ALSO: Is my UK driving licence still legal in France

“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.”

READ ALSO: Is my UK licence still valid for driving in France?

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. “

READ ALSO: What foreigners should know about the French driving test

“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.

Member comments

  1. I feel so sorry for the people unable to exchange their friving license. In my experience the French system can be absolute fustrating, especially if your French is not 100% fluent. Try calling any official organisation, often very fustrating with zero willingness to talk slowly and be patient, that’s when you guess the options right and get to speak to a real person!
    Maybe I have an idea what might work for shopping trips etc, if you can afford it buy a 45km car, you can always sell it later on.
    ‘French mini cars are known as voitures citadines (urban cars/city cars/compact cars), but French micro cars are known as voitures sans permis meaning licence free cars. … Learner drivers must be 18 before they can pass the practical driving test for cars. These cars are tiny and very slow with a maximum speed of 45km/h’.
    You will be able to do distances up to 50km quite comfortable, you are legal and dry in bad weather. It is just a thought, my very old father was no longer allowed to drive after an intracerebral hemorrhage (he did nearly fully
    recovered) and he was using one of those for short trips to doctor, barber etc. It is just an idea what might be a solution for now.

  2. Also in Italy we have this same damn problem….we knew Brexit was coming and we would need to jump through hoops to regularise our situations as EU residents but this reciprocal driving licence exchange is a farce…This is becoming a defacto driving ban unless you are fluent enough in your local language to understand the nuanced question in the theory part of a driving test even my local driving school tells me Italians struggle with the way questions are phrased.

    I personally did start the procedure last February to exchange my licence but halted the procedure because I had to visit the UK and you can’t rent a car without an actual licence…(you need to surrender your UK licence with an application)…When I returned form UK covid was taking a hold, here in Italy new licences were not being issued for Italians just extended until November…So past experience warned me trying to get a any official document was going to be a long drawn out affair… I decided to wait incase I needed my licence to visit the UK again…

    Then Brexit day arrived and I suddenly forgot how to drive after 40 years!!!

    To top it all off as I understand it from the DVLA an Italian or EU citizen in the UK can still just pay £43 and exchange their licence.

  3. We both applied to exchange our driving licences in January 2019. My husband got his through quite quickly because it was due to expire, however my applicarion was returned to me many months later with a letter saying that because the UK was still in the EU it was not necessary to change my licence. Out of interest I had at the same time sent off our applications for Cartes de Séjour.
    Back to driving licence, I started to do the online application in January this year and got to the stage where it listed what categories you held. Since I know I need a medical to renew the C1 category I binned the application with the intention of checking exactly what B&E towing category covered as we have a heavy trailer. I think now I’ll forget the heavier categories, though it would have been quite fun to have an HGV licence as I understand some people have ended up with over the years.
    Subsequent to that we got embroiled with re-applying online for cartes de sejour, successfully getting an appointment at Bordeaux prefecture in February this year, at which point it was revealing to see that the very pleasant guy behind the guichet had our previous application from 2019 in front of him !!!!
    Anyway, havingread that all applications were being rejected I haven’t bothered to attack driving licence again – yet… I’ll have to have a look and see on the ANTs site, which I’ve dealt with a few times and have another go. I assume I’ll be stuck like everyone else…
    Bl****y. brexit

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”