Driving in France and passing the exam “le code de la route”

If you have a European driving license or are from a country or state in the US that has an agreement with France you are lucky in that you can usually exchange your license for a French one by doing some paperwork via the nearest “prefecture.” This can take a long time but I have heard that most people who succeed at this get it back within a year. My unfortunate circumstance was having a California driver’s license which I renewed every five years but was stuck in the grey area of legality. Since it was coming up for another renewal and I felt I was paying too much money for automobile insurance I decided to put my foot down, pay the 1,000 euros to the local “auto-ecole” and start my lessons while complimenting those with practice tests on the internet (an extra 40 euros but well worth it).

There is something about putting down hard-earned money for an educational course; when you know you have no choice and cannot afford to fail, you do what it takes to learn what’s needed to pass. The cost seemed unfair but it did raise my level of commitment to the challenge. My frustration at the fact that I have been driving for more than 33 years was nothing compared to my worry of how I was going to find the time to study while being busy with a full time job, volunteering for the village, running a household with children, and blogging as a hobby. It took me over three months (with a short break for Christmas) but I managed it in the end. Here is my story with which I hope to help foreigners who are thinking of doing or need to do the same.

I have heard of the right for English speakers to have a translator present during the exam, or the possibility of taking the test in English but I have never actually seen this in practice. I did not get a translator because 1) it would have cost more money and hassle to get someone that was accredited come with me to the exam and 2) living in the rural Provence makes this option almost non-existant (it is likely more easily available in larger cities like Paris). When I asked about this option at the auto-ecole, the clerks looked at me with big eyes and simply responded “I dont know what you are talking about.” So, if you are living in a big city in France, do ask should you feel more comfortable about paying for and taking this option but if not, do it the hard way, ie, in French, like I did.

One of the reasons the French driving theory exam is so difficult is because of how many of the questions are simply not straight forward with regards to grammar. There are double negatives like “would you not let your passengers get out on the traffic side of the road instead of nearest the side walk if you were in a hurry?” Answer: yes or no. The correct answer is yes. In otherwords, you would not let your passengers do so as it would be dangerous. But really, wouldn’t it be more logical to ask without the double negative in the sentence? Of course it would, but that wouldnt be difficult enough. When I started my driving lessons with an instructor she told me to prepare myself for something they, the French, make very hard to pass…on purpose. But having gone through the laborious process I do feel that I have learned a ton about not only the driving code but about French culture and how the people think which helps a great deal in communicating with them, as an etrangère.

France is a country where children are generally encouraged to learn about life the hard way. Parents do not worry too much about not putting up a safety net on a trampoline or leaving sissors arranged in a cup in the middle of a class full of two and three-year olds. Up until recently there was an annual event here, run by the local parents’ committee, that celebrated “Le Feu de la St Jean” where they would have a bon fire and kids would have to run through it to prove they were brave enough. A couple of years ago though, an eight-year-old burned her legs quite severly, needing hospital care. So the event was canceled, finally, for the indefinite future. As an American growing up in a culture where lawsuits were common and huge sums of money would compensate victims, this was one of those jaw-dropping moments of life in France that was incomprehensible for me. But I one does get used to it.

So there was no surprise to see a question on a practice driving test exam like the following: you are driving through a crosswalk, the light is green for traffic, but there is a pedestrian already trying to cross the road – do you stop or do you keep going? The correct answer was: keep going. The pedestrian should know better than trying to cross on a red light.

Apparently the law has changed recently stating that pedestrians, no matter what the circumstances, always have the right of way. But the fact that it took the French so long to change the law (it probably took a few pedestrians to be run over at crosswalks for this to kick in) took me by complete surprise. So I had to look at the practice exams from a different perspective. I had to do my best to pretend to be French, to see their logic, sometimes in contradiction to my own, in order to click on the correct answers. Another example of this was being asked if there was a height limit on a trailer. I made the mistake of saying yes (well, duh!). But French law does not stipulate a height limit on what your trailer can transport. Of course you’ll feel rather stupid if you run into a tunnel and of course you’d be the one to flip the bill on any damages. On the other hand, they do require that car and truck loads on the roofs do not pass the length of your vehicle in front, and no more than 3 metres to the rear. Well, thank goodness for that.

There are 1,500 possible questions for which you’ll need to study the answers to. For the exam, 40 are taken randomly from the various subtopics like “other vehicles,” “road circulation,” “passenger security,” “the environment,” and “technical features and mechanics of the automobile.” I found that the most difficult questions were ones related to alcohol consumption, and how much was tolerated per miligrams of air exhaled as opposed to grams of alcohol per litre of blood. There are various ways of measuring alcohol as opposed to drugs (more French fun logic: “les drogues” do not comprise alcohol) and you’ll need to learn about that. To pass the exam, you need at least 35 correct answers. That means you’ll need to score 88 per cent or more. The official success rate for passing the theory exam was posted this year at 59 per cent. But if you are not a native French speaker, I would guess this rate would be lower and that the effort it takes is double. The tests take place in town halls or municipal building rooms with about 10 places equipped with tablettes and earphones. It takes about an hour from start to finish with some guidance in the beginning. The scores are sent to participants within the day (usually in the evening) by email.

Do not let me discourage you from this experience. Do remember that most of the questions are silly. I’d say half are really easy and anyone, even my 10 year old, could answer them correctly. The rest require some time to memorise and a little discipline in your schedule to learn gradually and building that basket of knowledge behind all those signs on the roads, what to do in an accident, which lights to use in different weather conditions, etc. It’s one of those things you will not be able to cram for, like I used to when I was young and at university. But if I can do it, so can you.

I still have some hours on the road with my instructor to complete and then I will pass my driving (practical) test with a government worker who specialises in this, someone I will not know personally, who will pass or fail me. Stay tuned if you want to know more. 🙂