However you look at it, France is a joy to drive in. If you’re the type who just wants to put pedal to metal and whizz down to the Mediterranean coast, you’ll love the motorway system.
Motorways may be tolled but they are still great value for money, and cost just enough to deter the local farmers in their rusting 2CVs.
If, on the other hand, you take a more relaxed approach to motoring holidays, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Because once you leave the autoroute and delve down some of the tens of thousands of minor roads you’ll find a France that, even in the 21st century, remains stubbornly rural.
You won’t need to venture far off the beaten track to enjoy a true Gallic experience.
Within 20 minutes of rolling off a ferry at Calais you can find yourself on twisting country lanes lined with fields and wild flowers or pulling up at a medieval village.
And although it would be madness to travel without maps or a Europe-friendly sat nav, it’s often when you take a wrong turn that you really stumble on La Belle France.
Hit the road
The authorities have cracked down on motoring offences, particularly speeding and drink-driving.
In fact, more than 1,000 hidden speed cameras have been installed and police have stepped up random breath tests.
Drivers must carry mandatory breathalyser kits in their cars. This goes for any motorist, including holidaymakers, who face a fine if they're caught not carrying one.
The legal alcohol limit is 50mg in every 100ml of blood, compared to 80mg in the UK. If you’re found to be over the limit you face having your licence confiscated – or prison.
And if you’re caught speeding by a patrol car you’ll have to cough up a heavy on-the-spot fine. The good news is that tougher policing is dramatically reducing road deaths across France.
One of the easiest ways to fall foul of the law is when passing through a village on a fast country road.
The speed limit can drop from 90kmh to 50kmh with only the sign showing the name of the village as warning.
This is important - if police catch you exceeding a limit by 40kmh or more they can confiscate your licence.
Police can also fine you for speeding if they calculate that you’ve zipped too quickly from one motorway tollbooth to the next.
Sir Norman Foster’s Millau Viaduct, the world’s highest road bridge, is a breathtaking feat of engineering taller than the Eiffel Tower.
It’s also incredibly handy, banishing bottlenecks on the journey south along the A75 between Clermont-Ferrand and the Mediterranean.
The bridge, which opened in 2004, was built to divert traffic away from the pretty Roman town of Millau. Ironically, Millau, now free of tourists, is once again a great place to visit.
It also boasts gob-smacking views of the bridge overhead. So the smart move is to cross the bridge in one direction and, in the other, take the back roads into Millau.
If you fancy something a little more quirky, there's always the lemon festival in the city of Menton every spring.
Best of the rest
Whether it’s beaches, mountains, rolling farmland or winding valleys that light your spark plug, France has enough spectacular drives to keep you gee-whizzing for years on end.
The trick is to get off the beaten track. So rather than sit in a jam on the Cote d’Azur, head north along the Ardeche, where the road climbs past unspoilt villages, and historic castles.
In Brittany, avoid the busy resorts and take the coast road from Morlaix to Le Conquet past fishing villages, pretty coves and lighthouses.
Or you can potter around Alsace – Europe’s most attractive wine region, where the route between Obernai and Soultz is dotted with exquisite medieval villages, gothic churches and vineyards.
Laws of the land
- In built-up areas horns should only be used in emergencies.
- In the mountains in winter you must have winter tyres or snow chains.
- Don’t park on a single yellow line - you could be towed away.
- If you witness a serious accident you are legally obliged to offer assistance. At the very least, call the emergency services by dialling 18. The Pompiers - the fire brigade - will co-ordinate other services.
- Motorcyclists must dip their headlights during the day and wear crash helmets - including the passenger.
French speed limits
Outside built-up areas
Urban motorways / dual carriageways
130 kmh (minimum 80kmh)
- Lower speed limits apply in the wet.
- Lower speed limits apply if you’ve held a licence for less than two years.
- Radar detectors are illegal.
On a narrow or congested road an oncoming driver who flashes his lights at you is not inviting you to pass first.
He means: “I’m coming through - whether you like it or not”. On main roads the same signal could be a warning of a police speed trap.
In France, as in much of continental Europe, drivers tend to treat cyclists with respect and give them a wide berth. Pedestrians, on the other hand, get short shrift.
The baffling French law that gives priority to drivers entering a road from the right has largely been phased out. However, it persists on some roundabouts and built-up areas.
If you’re pulling onto a main road a yellow diamond sign indicates that you need to give way. In the countryside it’s best to be wary of cars entering from the right.
Planning on driving to another country? Take a look at our section on driving in Europe.
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