When driving in France, there are a number of legal requirements. Some of the items which most frequently cause people issues are:
- Insurance. You must have France Car Insurance and must display your insurance details in your windscreen. For details, click on France Car Insurance.
- Documentation. If stopped by the police, you are required to have a valid driving license, car insurance certificate and vehicle registration papers (in France, the latter is known as a carte grise). As you should have the car insurance tab on your windscreen (see above) you are not normally asked for any other proof of insurance. If your driving license does not include a photo, you will need a piece of identification (such as a passport) which does in order to verify your identity.
- Equipment. Your car must carry a red breakdown triangle and a reflective safety jacket (the latter must be present in the car itself, not in the boot or trunk of the car). If you do not have these, they are easy to obtain (try your nearest car dealer, motorway station or a DIY shop with a car equipment section). If your car is halted on the road (e.g. due to an accident) your are required to place the warning triangle at least 30 meters behind the car and it must be visible for at least 100 meters. If you are present at an accident, either because you were involved or because you are helping out, you are required to wear your reflective jacket. All lights and signals must be in correct working order at all times, so it is adviseable to carry a spare set of bulbs and fuses so that you can do a replacement if neccessary.
- Alcohol. The drink driving limit is much lower in France than in the UK. Whereas the UK allows 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, France allows only 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood.
- Seat belts. The driver and all passengers are required to wear seat belts.
- Children. Children under the age of 10 cannot be seated in the front seat, unless they have a special rear-facing seat. Small children are required to have child car seats; the requirements in this regard are subject to change so if you are unsure you should check the current requirements.
- Fines. If you commit a minor or moderate driving violation (e.g. speeding, going through a stop light), you are required to pay the fine on the spot. Don't assume that you will be able to pay by credit card or cheque, it is best if you have cash. You will receive a copy of the report and a receipt. The police are not looking for a bribe, it is just standard procedure to require payment on the spot rather than sending a fine through the mail.
- Headlights. If you are visiting in France from the UK, your headlights will not be correctly adjusted because the direction in which they point is set based on driving on the other side of the road. Consequently, when using your headlights at night, you can 'blind' drivers coming in the other direction. To avoid this, you either need to have your headlights adjusted for France, or place special stickers on the headlights to avoid affecting on-coming drivers (the latter approach is far cheaper and faster). Failure to do this is not only dangerous, but also illegal.
- License Plates. If your car license plates are not from France (e.g. if visiting with a UK car), you must add a country sticker to the rear of your car (e.g. GB for Great Britan). The exception to this is if your have European license plates.
- Mobile Phones. It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving, even if you have hands-free.
- Speed Limits. You are legally required to obey the maximum speed limits. If the speed limit is not posted, the maximum speed limits are:
- Motorway: The maximum speed on motorways is 130 km/hour. If the road is wet, the maximum drops to 110 km/hour.
- Main Roads. The main roads have a speed limit of 90 km/hour. When you enter a village/town/city this drops to 50 km/hour. Note that a village or town city limit is normally indicated by a white rectangular sign with the name of the village or town, when you leave the village/town you will see the same sign with a diagonal line through the village name, indicating that you are now leaving the village. Keep in mind that in rural areas the village can be very small (perhaps only several houses), and that the actual limitis may be some distance outside the built-up area. Consequently, to avoid inadvertently exceeding the speed limit, one needs to look not only for villages, but more importantly for the village limit signs, in order than one can reduce your speed to 50 km/hour.
- Towing. If you are towing a caravan or heavy trailer, the speed limit may be lower. The actual limit will depend on the weight of your car in comparison to your payload.
- Trucks. If you are driving a moving truck or other large vehicle, the speed limits on certain roads and in some villages may be lower (keep alert to sign posts indicating this).
- MOT. Cars over four years old must pass a safety and emissions control test (similiar to a MOT in the UK), which then must be repeated every two years.
- Tax. France does not have an annual car tax (it was cancelled some years ago). However, when you buy a vehicle, you will need to pay a one-off tax. When you pay the tax, you will at the same time receive the car registration document (known as a carte grise).
One area of legal requirements which is subject to a lot of discussion and disagreement is the use of non-France driving licenses. If you have a UK or other EU driving license, you can use it to drive in France for visits and holidays. However, if you move to France or are on a long-term visit (e.g. 2 years), you may need to exchange your licence for a France driving license.
- The French authorities are divided as to whether you are legally required to exchange your UK license for a France license when you move to France. Some préfectures say that it is, some say that it isn't. If you do exchange your license for a France license, then you are legally covered. If you do not, there are differing opinions as to whether you are breaking the law or not.
- To complicate things further, if you have a UK driving license and change address, the UK license authorities require you to advise them of the change of address. However, in the case that you tell them you have moved to France, they will then send you the paperwork (and possibly initiate the procedure) to have your UK license exchanged for a French one. So, on top of the uncertain France legal position, there are also the UK legal considerations.
- It has also been reported that if you are resident in France and commit a driving offence which results in you losing points, the French authorities will require you to exchange your license so that the points can be recorded. In practice this is not always done; I know of people who have lost points from speeding and dispite showing their UK driving license while reporting their France permanent address, have not been required to exchange licenses.
- So, in summary, the legal and practical requirements in this area are very unclear, with even the French authorities taking various different approaches. If you want to be on the save side, you can exchange for a France license. However, it is far from certain that you have to do so.
If you import a car to France (e.g. your existing UK car), it will need to be registered at your local préfecture. You may be liable for varioius taxes on it and will need to fill out a certain amount of paperwork; both taxes and paperwork can be substantially greater if the car is coming from the USA or other non-EU country. For cars originating outside the EU, you may also be required to undertake expensive modifications to make the car conform to EU norms. Consequently, before deciding to import a car to France, it is worth visiting our local préfecture to determine the requirements and costs, so that you can determine if it is worth the time and money involved.