Adventures in getting a French driving license

Part I: The theory exam (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. 🙂

Part II – The driving exam

After 20 hours of driving around with an instructor (this part took me over 2 months because the school was booked up during the times when it was most convenient for me to take my lesson), I finally took an “exam blanc.” This is something that is part of the general French educational curriculum and every school has them in the important subjects. Basically it’s a test before the real test that gives you an idea of what it will be like to go through, as close to the real experience as possible.

When I showed up to the exam blanc I thought I was the only one with that appointment but no, there were three other students waiting and when the instructor was ready he (this time a man) picked whomever he felt like to go first. I ended up waiting 30 minutes for my turn. The instructor warned me that this is what it will be like on the big day: ie, you show up and will be with a bunch of other people and you must wait your turn.

I was confident during my exam blanc and thought I was driving well. Except the instructor was tapping on his phone the entire time and I felt very uneasy about this. I made a few mistakes: one was not realising I was in 3rd gear when I should have been in 4th, another was not keeping my left hand signal on long enough during a full 360 degree turn around on a roundabout, and finally, I didn’t follow the road signs when he told me to head towards Vins from Brignoles (I was going by instinct the way I knew from previous drives out there). I missed the sign for Vins and kept going straight. But he told me this was not a big deal and I wouldnt be marked down too much for it. When I called in the next day (it took 18 hours before I could get my results) the school told me I did well on the test, so phew. It also turned out that the instructor was taking notes about my driving on his phone so he was not texting or using his phone for any other reason!

On the day of the official driving exam, there were two state appointed inspectors who showed up a few minutes late. I showed up on time to dusty area just next to the Pole Emploi and main fire station in Brignoles. There were four other students there (all very young so I felt very old), and two types of Citroën C3 cars; one automatic the other a stick-shift, or “manual” in French. There were also two of the instructors from the school present and each was to accompany an inspector and a student. I had to wait my turn, I was last, in the cold wind and dust swirling around me. There was nowhere to sit and I just thanked god that it was not raining.

While waiting I chatted to two of the young boys (they must have been around 19 years old) and they were nervous. They explained to me that they had both already taken and failed the exam twice before. So this is when I started to feel a bit jittery. But I kept reminding myself that I have had 34 years of driving experience with zero accidents that were my fault: once a car smashed into me from behind on the Bay Bridge near San Francisco (my car was stopped because there was a big pile up of traffic), and another time a guy ran into me from my left while I was making a right turn from the right side of the road. Both times the fault was clearly the other driver’s. I also remembered that I passed my exam blanc so, clearly, this will not be that difficult.

When my turn finally came up the inspector told me to set myself up, that she would be asking me to drive with thought towards other drivers, to follow the signs when going towards a direction “autonome”, and to follow her instructions exactly how she wanted them. I agreed, even though I found it a bit hard to clearly understand her very posh accent and fast French. I reminded myself to adjust my head rest and ask my passengers if they were belted in securely. This is one of those must-dos when taking this exam.

I drove, following all the speed limits, remembering to go fast and drive up to the limit when possible (you’ll be marked down for going too slow otherwise!!) and checking my mirrors before signalling to make turns, particularly on roundabouts. I did make a few mistakes however. I didn’t stay to the right far enough on the roundabouts and the inpector yelled at me. I thought I was far enough to the right side but she sarcastically explained “um, no, being in the centre of the roundabout is not being on the right hand side.” The other mistake was, according to her, not looking in my rearview mirrors often enough. Signalling to park, signalling to leave a parking space, signalling to do ANYTHING is very important during these tests even when there is absolutely no one else around you. At the end of my exam we came across a stopped school bus with its hazard lights flashing. I stopped for a moment because I wasn’t sure if there might be kids coming out of it. But the instructor yelled at me again to flick my left signal light on because “in anycase you are going to have to pass him!” Just as I was going to move however, there was a car that drove rather fast from behind me that passed us both so I felt right to stop and take my time.

At the end of the exam the lady asked me about my California license and what it’s like in the States to go through the process of getting one. I explained that it is very easy, that the driver’s education is paid for by the government via public high school curriculum, that on the day it cost 16 dollars (or did in the 80s) to get the card processed, and that we take our own cars out for the exam. The lady looked shocked – I didn’t blame her.

It took two days to get the exam result. The reason the French take this time to send out results is because there was once a case where an inspector was beat up for not passing a driver. I found the wait frustrating but I understand the reason. I must do everything the French way if I want to call this place my forever home.

In the end it took me almost six months to complete the process of getting a French driving license from scratch. But the adventure was never boring, there was always something to learn and I enjoyed my chats with my instructor who shared a lot of local political gossip with me. That was priceless.