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Driving In France: How To Survive Our (Sometimes) Ridiculous Rules

Updated 9 May 2024 by Leyla Alyanak — Parisian by birth, Lyonnaise by adoption, historian by passion

Road trips are perfect for exploring France, especially rural areas without public transportation. But our rules can be confusing for visitors. Here are some of my tips for driving in France that should make things easier for you.

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Travel in France by car can either be abominable or heavenly, depending on how much you know before you get behind the wheel.

Travel France by car: the good, the bad, the worst

First, I'm not a driving instructor or a cop, nor am I the world's best driver. I'm just your garden variety French motorist, and I'm not blind to my countrymen's (the worst offenders do tend to be men, according to insurance companies) road manners. I care about safety, yours and mine, so these tips on driving in France are going to be brutally honest.

This is not full rundown of driving rules in France: it is a highlight of the absolute, must-know basics for driving in France as a tourist, with a spotlight on rules that are counter-intuitive at best, illogical, stupid, or at worst, even dangerous.

There aren't many of these bad eggs but those that do exist will leave you shaking your head.

NOTE: Things change and driving laws in France evolve, so none of the following information is legal advice. To make sure, please check official sources.

Various road signs in France

The worst of driving in France

I'm going to start with the worst of French driving, just to get it out of my system. If you survive this section, the next ones should be a breeze.

The French sometimes drink and drive

Laws against drunk driving in France are very strict.

The blood alcohol limit is 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood (even less if you're a new driver or on probation). That's two glasses of wine or beer.

Drivers who are over the limit risk a maximum penalty of three years in jail and a € 9000 fine, in addition to all sorts of other penalties like losing your licence and even your car.

Even if you're not way over the limit, it isn't worth it. Still, that doesn't stop some drivers from getting behind the wheel.

The notion of designated driver is still not as widespread as it should be, especially in my rural area, when people rush home for dinner after apéro time in the local café.

Driving tips France - speeding trucks and cars on the highway can make travelling in France by car challenging

Timing is important, and you'll usually find the worst drivers:

  • right after lunch (that lunchtime wine)
  • right before dinner (rushing home after aperitif time)
  • right after dinner out (dinner drinks)
  • late on Friday and Saturday evenings (when people leave bars and discos at closing time)

Despite our robust rules, some 30% of fatal accidents on French roads are alcohol related, and three-quarters are caused by young men.

The good news is that these numbers are falling. I can't imagine what they were like before. To be fair, I do occasionally hear someone say, "I'm not drinking because I'm driving." But it's still quite the exceptoin, at least in my corner of the countryside. I'm sure driving in larger cities is better...


France sign

Reading my driving tips helps, but you owe it to yourself and others to be the safest and most confident driver. 

This online course is a quick and enjoyable way for you or your second driver to learn our driving rules. I live and drive in France, and even I learned things while taking it that make my drives more enjoyable and relaxing and remove a lot of the stress. Find out more here.

The French often talk on mobile phone when driving

Penalties are stiffening, and some drivers actually demonstrate guilt as they reach for their mobiles while steaming down the autoroute.

Let's be real: 7 in 10 French drivers (more women than men in this case) admit they've used their phones while driving.

The penalty is a loss of points on a licence (in France you lose points when you're caught disobeying road rules) and a fine, although if you're involved in an accident while talking or texting, you could lose your licence.

For many French, that's a pinprick and not enough to sit up and take notice.

Speeding (HIGH speeding) is all too common

This may be the most disconcerting sight on French roads: with overhead speed cameras snapping your every move and radars at the ready, you'll be toodling along, minding the speed limit, when a gust of wind to your left (and sometimes to your right) will signal either a cyclone (can't be, not in France!) or a car passing you at such high speed it is almost out of sight by the time you recover.

Whether it's Gallic stubbornness or an ego-driven desire to show off, chances are you'll be tailgated if you stick carefully to the France speed limits. Just ignore the tailgaters. You'll probably soon see them by the side of the road, being ticketed. So satisfying.

Motorway signs are blue (but French traffic lights are the same as in most countries - green, yellow and red)

It's worse on country roads, where passing is more difficult because of narrower roads and oncoming traffic.

Rules for driving in France: The lesser bad habits of bad drivers

Having made it through the worst of French driving habits, we are now left with the everyday "bad things", more inconvenient than dangerous:

  • the size of cars, possibly smaller than you may be used to
  • the narrowness of roads and streets, especially in small villages, sometimes barely wide enough for two cars, one of which may have to stop to let the other go by
  • steep inclines and frequent curves
  • aggressive and short-tempered drivers who treat the road like their living room
  • speed limits, which are neither uniform nor uniformly enforced (and often disobeyed)
  • motorcyclists who weave between lanes...

A word about cyclists: along the road, you may see groups of anywhere from 2 to 20 (mostly) men huffing and puffing their way up a mountain road steep enough to scare even a goat. Cycling is a national sport and you ignore that at your peril.

To pass, please be patient and wait until there is a safe place to pass the entire group, and that might be a long way uphill. Once you can pass, make sure you leave 1.5m (5ft) between you and the cyclists.

And please, don't cheer them on by honking. You'll surprise them and someone might fall off...

What if there's a solid line in the middle of the road? According to a gendarme friend of mine, just keep your two right tires on the right side of the solid line as you pass, with only your two left tires over the line. (Just for info, you can pass a cyclist on a solid line but not a farm tractor going five an hour.) I hope he's right because that's what I've been doing.

The good news about a France driving holiday

The good news is that there are plenty of sane people on the roads or we'd all be dead.

More good news: things are improving! 

While there are regional differences, roads in my own region of eastern France – what used to be called the Rhône-Alpes – are beautifully maintained. Each year, the worst patches get resurfaced and lines redrawn. 

But the REALLY GOOD NEWS is this: French roads cut through some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous countryside on the planet.

For example, the gorgeous hilltop villages of the Luberon can only be reached by car... or these wonderful off the beaten path destinations which many foreign visitors have never been to.

By the way, when I say countryside, I mean country roads, away from the motorways (or autoroutes, as they're called here). This is where you'll enjoy the best French road trips, surrounded by a bucolic beauty that belongs on postcards: spotless scenery, lovely villages and farms, majestic monuments, stunning castles.

It's all there, and driving is the best way to see it. 


If you plan to rent a car, compare rental car costs first, because they vary widely depending on whether you rent downtown or at the airport, in urban areas or the suburbs, or in one part of France as opposed to another. This is the comparison engine I use.

France driving tips: how to drive in France and survive French roads

So there you have it: high-speed drivers, texting while driving, and drinking before getting behind the wheel are your main enemies on French roads, correct?

Wrong! Sometimes, it's French law itself that puts you in danger (or at least in a state of teeth-chattering stress). Its ignorance will compound your risk - so it is absolutely essential that you learn some of our quirks.

Some driving requirements for France may be downright ridiculous, but you still need to know the rules. Have a look at this fantastic course that will teach you the rules for far less than the cost of a fine.

Roundabouts or traffic circles

France loves its roundabouts; we have about 43,000 of them, or about half the  roundabouts in the world, not bad considering this bit of traffic equipment was "invented" in the UK, which has a modest 26,000...

Usually, priority is given to the vehicle already IN the roundabout.

Where you do NOT have priority, French road signs will be placed on your right as you approach the roundabout: "Vous n'avez pas la priorité", or, You don't have priority. If you don't read French fast enough as you whip by, you may end up diving into a fast-moving maelstrom.

There is one exception that trumps all exceptions: the scariest roundabout in France, the Place de l'Étoile in central Paris, gives priority to those ENTERING the roundabout. That's right. Just plunge in, and anyone on your left (you're coming from their right) will stop. Probably.

Priorité à droite

Don't skip over those words just because they're in French - this may be the most important driving rule you'll learn in this country.

Basically, it means this: anyone coming from your right has right of way, even if they're joining a main road from a tiny village track.

So it's simple. Assume people coming from your right have priority, UNLESS something says they don't, like:

  • a STOP sign facing oncoming traffic from the right, which means they have to stop (and which by some magical X-ray vision you're supposed to see from the back as you drive by)
  • a solid white line painted in front of them across their road
  • and the main one: a priority sign on YOUR road. If you see this sign on your road, you can drive on without a worry.

Otherwise, assume traffic from your right has priority. Utterly ridiculous. If people actually obeyed this, they'd be coming to a stop every few seconds, fearfully checking all the little streets and roads on their right.

But yes, be very vigilant. Unless you see the big yellow priority sign below on YOUR road, assume some slow-moving electric car can simply swerve out in front of you, unannounced. Ridiculous, as far as I'm concerned.

And if that big yellow and white sign has a thick black diagonal line through it? It simply means you no longer have priority.

Priority sign on French roadsYou have priority
Yield at the crossroads signCrossroad ahead but you don't have priority
Crossroads ahead sign in FranceCrossroad ahead but you do have priority

This kind of rule may well work in Paris, when you're merging ten lanes of traffic onto the Place de l'Étoile but otherwise, it's nerve-wracking and in my humble opinion, more dangerous than the dangers it was probably designed to avoid.

And if I insist on this one, it's because this is THE one that will probably cause you the most angst.

Here's how it plays out.

There you are, ambling carefree along your road at the legal 80 or 90 kph (it depends on the road – speed limits are signposted). You enter a lovely village so you slow down (speed limit drops to 50 the moment you pass the sign with the name of the village or town) when suddenly, someone driving at the speed of a snail pulls out from a nearly invisible alley on your right and cuts you off, giving you a split second to slam on your brakes. An alley!

That driver has priority. 

This rule is just as confusing for us French, by the way, not just for foreigners.

In a logical world, things would be the other way around: you would simply have priority on a main road, or on the bigger road. Any exception would be signalled.

But this is France.

Other priorities

French roads are often narrower than you may be used to and have plenty of blind spots. Don't be surprised to see a bus hurtling towards you around a sharp mountainous bend. Don't worry, you are both in the right place. One of you may have to reverse — usually the smaller vehicle.

That also happens on hills. Usually, the vehicle going up has priority. Unless the vehicle coming down is larger, or is pulling a trailer, or is a tractor, or... you get the gist.

If someone is barrelling towards you and clearly has no intention of stopping, give them the benefit of the doubt, and let them by.

A few other basic driving tips in France

Seat belts are compulsory, in both front seat and back seats. But that's just common sense.

You cannot text and drive. We've covered that. 

If you happen to be driving here in winter, you'll need to take special care. There is a new winter tire/chain law. In some départements, between 1 November and 31 March, you must either have snow tires, all-season tires, or carry chains in your car. (Here's the official French government page that describes it all – in French of course.)

Roads have pull-offs where you can stop and put your chains on, but make sure you actually know how. I've struggled with new chains in sub-zero temperatures, my frozen fingers barely able to attach them.

More France driving rules to know

We've just looked at a few basic rules, but not everything is a rule. Some things are just useful to know, and others are things you may not have thought of.

I suggest you drive defensively, however in the right you may think you are, and remember, you're a foreigner, not a local who knows the usage rules for their towns and villages.

I once lived in a pedestrian-only medieval village. Residents were allowed to drive in, but there was no sign that said so. So each time I drove into my village, I'd get yelled at and even insulted by tourists pointing to the 'no automobiles' sign. 

Tips for Canadians and Americans driving in France

If you're from Canada or the United States, beware the size of car you rent. The car rental agent may think s/he is being helpful by offering you the bigger luxury car at the same price — careful. French roads are not designed for larger vehicles and many villages were not built for cars at all. Try getting your SUV stuck in a tiny medieval cobblestone alley with no room to turn around and you'll desperately wish you'd rejected the upgrade.

You probably know this, but as a reminder, most French cars have manual transmission. These days, car rental companies will usually stock an automatic transmission or two but you'll pay extra, and because there are few of these, they might not have any when you need one. This, however, is slowly evolving and automatic cars are becoming increasingly available.

And finally, don't trust GPS systems without a backup, like Google maps or a reliable paper map of France. I've spent many an hour wandering around an industrial area trying to get out... On the other hand, going on an adventure and letting your GPS lead the way can be great fun and lead to plenty of discoveries.

Tips for renting a car in France 

Many places in France can be reached by train, but not all, especially you want to visit some of our more offbeat corners.

If you don't have your own car, you'll have to rent one, but before you do, please read this piece about things you should know before renting a car in France.

If you're not ready to rent and just want a few tips, please continue reading.

Before you rent, first check is whether your credit card or home insurance covers your car hire. Rental prices can double once you add the insurance and who knows, you might already be covered by your credit cards or insurance.

What I do is walk around the car and take a video of every little scratch with my phone. Most rental agencies are perfectly honest, but it gives me that extra confidence. You know, the 'just-in-case' factor.

Before you drive off, spend a few minutes becoming familiar with the car, the stick shift, the lights and windshield wipers. You don't want to wait until a downpour to figure out where the wipers are.

Here's where you can check car rental availability and prices across France.

Parking in French cities

How high is your car? I ask because many parking garages here are extremely low, and the sign that tells you how high they are is extremely tiny. I know this for a fact. Trust me; once you get stuck in a parking garage entrance, it is both costly and embarrassing to be rescued.

Some garages can only clear 1m80, which is passable for a small automobile but anything slightly larger, including certain city SUVs, will not fit. Ask your car rental agent before you drive off, and check before you start down any ramp! The height limit sign will usually be overhead or to your right.

Street parking may not be free. Search for a meter — you'll usually have to feed it and it's often at the end of the street, or hidden from view. The word "payant" means you have to pay.

There are two main kinds: one that asks for your licence plate number, and one that asks for your money and gives you a ticket in return (you place it on your windshield). These machines are notoriously confusing for the French, let alone for foreigners. Locals will usually take pity on you if you ask for help...

If parking spaces are separated by blue lines, this means you're allowed to park for free for two hours but you'll need to place a blue disk on your dashboard that indicates what time you arrived – you can buy these at gas stations of tobacco stores.

Using French motorways: highway tolls in France

Every country has its motorway etiquette. Here's ours.

Each lane at a toll is marked (although the markings could be bigger...) Here's what the symbols stand for:

  • An orange T means you need an electronic pass, bought in France. The same orange T exists in Belgium, for example, but their passes don't work here. If you happen to be Belgian and you didn't read this first, please don't reverse and try to sneak into another lane. Stay put, and an official will come and rescue you while everyone behind you honks in frustration. The extreme left lane will often have a circle with a 30 on it: don't be fooled, this is not for you. You can whip through at 30kph but ONLY if you have the French electronic pass! (On major autoroutes there may be more than one such lane.)
  • A white symbol that should look like a credit card being inserted into a payment column but that looks more like a smudge. Be guided by the white colour. If you're using a credit card, make sure it has a smart chip. The payment machines usually have a button with English instructions but if the sun hits them wrong or you can't find your reading glasses, you'll soon be honked at by a lengthening line of cars behind you. Save yourself the hassle and use cash unless you're certain about your card.
  • For cash, head for the downward pointing green arrow. You can slip banknotes into the slot or throw a handful of coins into the basket. Also, these are often the least-crowded lanes.
Autoroute toll station in FranceThese are the signs you'll find as you enter a paying autoroute. Learn them before you go, so you won't have to weave around once you get there

Additional tips for driving on the autoroute in France

  • You usually pay when you get off the autoroute, but not always. Sometimes there's a flat fee when you join and a few tolls along the way. But most times, you'll get a ticket when you first enter the autoroute and pay when you get off. 
  • These days, few toll roads are manned by humans so if you have a problem with any of the above, well... you'll have to wait for someone from the little building on the side to come out and see what all the honking is about. Or, use the microphone, but most attendants speak only French. They might take a while to answer, but keep trying.
  • You can stop along the motorway either at a gas station, which will have all major facilities, or at an "aire", a rest area, which is often equipped with picnic tables and clean bathrooms. Gas or petrol stations often don't take cash at night or make you pre-pay at the machine before you fill up, so make sure you fill your tank before evening.
  • There are certain compulsory items for driving in France. These include storing bright yellow reflective jackets in your car (one per person), as well as an emergency warning triangle to signal distress.
  • If you're from Britain and are driving your own car, make sure you use beam deflectors so that you don't blind oncoming traffic. You should be able to buy these on the ferry across and they're a requirement for driving in France with British cars.

Our motorways can be crowded with trucks and if you have a tiny car that wiggles in the wind, try to drive when trucks are off the road, either at night, or on Sundays, where only refrigerated trucks are allowed, or over lunch, when drivers are, well, eating lunch. Other good times to be on the road are very early morning (trucks, but few cars, and people haven't had wine yet) and after 7:30 pm, when truckers have stopped for the day and everyone else is home for supper.

Frankly, though, you'll rarely catch me on a motorway. I'd rather take my time in the gorgeous countryside. 

France is a country of terrifically scenic roads, of achingly lovely villages, of soaring mountains and crystal lakes and to get to most of it, you'll need a car to head off beyond the autoroute. 


CLICK HERE to download!

There's no doubt about it: a car is the absolute best way to get off the beaten track in France (to stay on the beaten track, though, nothing beats the train!)

Traveling France by car: Useful resources

Driving in France FAQ

Is driving in France easy?

Driving in France is not easy, but it is perfectly manageable as long as you become familiar with the rules of the road and drive with care, as is the case in most countries.

Can tourists drive in France?

Yes, with a valid driver’s license.

But your licence should either be in French, or have a French translation. The easiest way to do this is to get an International Driving Permit, or IDP, in your own country before leaving. The IDP contains your photo and the text of your driving license in a dozen languages.

What do you need when driving in France?

A valid driver's licence, car registration, proof of car insurance, and ID document (a passport if you're from outside the EU).

Which side of the street do they drive on in France?

The French drive in the right lane, like the US and Canada.

Can you drive in France on a US licence?

Yes, for up to one year. BUT - driving in France requirements include the ability of French police to read your licence. So if you're driving in France with a US license (or any other non-French speaking country), you'll need an International Driving Permit (IDP). You can get this from your local automobile association but get it before you leave.

What is the legal driving age in France?

In most cases, the minimum age for driving in France age is 18. But there are certain types of accompanied driving solutions that allow those who have undergone training and a driving test to drive at 17.

Before you go...

Road trips in France are among the best experiences you can have in this country, because they can take you to small, isolated places few tourists ever see – like these road trips, for example.

Or take your pick from the list of most beautiful villages in France – while some can indeed be reached by public transportation, many others are on hilltops or in distant valleys, out of sight and ready to be explored by you.

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