petite anglaise

January 26, 2005

driving in Paris: a survival guide

Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:45 pm
cars mating in Paris, yesterday

I passed my driving test on the third attempt. Even then, I’m not convinced this was in the best interests of the residents of York.

The summer before going away to university when my mother foolishly insured me to drive her car, I managed to reverse into a Tesco trolley park and hit the brick gatepost in our driveway. My father spent most of that summer removing the bumper, hammering it back into shape and putting it back on again. In my defence, the trolley park in question was empty and in the blind spot in the rear window. This was in the days when car seats were not height adjustable. I remember vividly the day my long-suffering driving instructor told me to line up the curb with a sticker on the rear window when reversing around the corner. I had to break the news to him that I couldn’t even see the curb. I’m not called petite for nothing.

That was in 1991. I haven’t driven since. To complicate matters I am now living in a country where people drive on the wrong side of the road and change gear with their right hands. After a decade I still cannot get my head around this, so whether I’m in France or the UK I invariably head to the wrong side of every car when trying to locate the passenger seat. And whether I’m crossing a French road or an English road I inevitably look the wrong way first. To make matters worse, I live in a city where most people drive as if they have just snorted several grams of cocaine (arrogantly, aggressively), parallel park in miniscule spaces (ahem, parallel parking wasn’t even tested back in 1991) and disregard a different highway code altogether. You will be relieved to hear that I don’t plan to exchange my British driving license for a French one any time soon.

If you are foolhardy enough to drive in the French capital, here are a few tips on how to drive like a native Parisian:

  • You know those lovely big French roundabouts with no lane markings whatsoever – like Charles de Gaulle Etoile, Bastille and Place de la Concorde? The rule for use of these roundabouts is under no circumstances should you use your indicator to show people what your intentions are. Instead, weave in and out of the ‘lanes’ in a random fashion, and then cut off several lanes of traffic when you reach your exit.
  • Learn to park the French way! Nudging the bumpers of the cars adjacent to your space is perfectly acceptable, and indeed expected. I once spied four people lifting a Fiat Uno sideways out of a space it had got hemmed into.
  • Ignore traffic lights. Give yourself an extra five seconds to drive across a junction after the lights have turned to red. Everyone else does. Or at the very least, brake at the very last minute so that paranoid, pushchair-wheeling pedestrians are unsure about whether you plan to stop, or not. That way they can only get to the traffic island in the middle before the lights change.
  • If you drive a moped/scooter/motorbike it is compulsory to drive the wrong way around traffic islands in order to get ahead. It keeps pedestrians on their toes (except petite anglaise, who instinctively looks the wrong way and therefore cannot be caught out). Driving across the pavement to jump the lights altogether is also perfectly acceptable, on one condition: do not reduce your speed.
  • The horn should be used liberally at all times, and not just when you are part of a wedding cortège. Rolling down your windows and swearing* is also highly recommended if you want to blend in with the natives. There doesn’t have to be any particular provocation. And don’t forget to accompany your tirade with a vigorous shake of your fist.

cut out and keep swearing vocab in French:

connard! – assehole!
enculé! – asshole!
fils de pute! – sonofabitch!

You’re good to go.


  1. Regarding the free-for-all roundabouts like the one by the Arc de Triomphe; don’t forget that in addition to the mad drivers you also have the insane local children that like to play ‘chicken’ by running across to the centre and back again. I admit that I don’t know what the scoring system is; maybe I will ask one of the nonchalant agents de police who overlook the spectacle the next time I am there. Watch this space…

    Comment by nick — January 26, 2005 @ 1:19 pm

  2. Oh, I am always so comforted to learn that someone clearly highly intelligent and functional is a lousy/non driver like me! I think the lack of spatial/direction awareness/memory you refer to is absolutely to the point – have reached the conclusion it’s a bit of the brain or nervous system that just doesn’t work very well in some of us and makes driving very difficult. It does often seem to go with bad eyesight too, though obviously a wider deficit that just not being able to see is involved. Paris is probably one of the few places where not driving is not a terrible handicap to the mother of a small kid, isn’t it? Like you, I’m excellent at swearing in more than one language, though. Fortunately, there are other outlets for this.

    Comment by Jean — January 26, 2005 @ 1:57 pm

  3. I was most perturbed in France to find that, even when there is a green man, pedestrians can still be mown down by cars turning into the road you’re crossing.

    In Britain, green man = safe to cross.

    My French ex found it most quaint that people in Britain stop for pedestrians waiting at zebra crossings…

    Comment by witho — January 26, 2005 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Despite learning to drive in Manhattan I have never dared drive in Paris (or maybe my other half won’t let me drive his nice shiny car on the mad streets).

    What makes me laugh is the difference in the roundabout systems. Apparently, Paris is the only place in France where those already on the roundabout have to give way to the entering traffic. Another reason for those from the provinces to complain about parisians.

    Comment by l'oiseau — January 26, 2005 @ 3:05 pm

  5. hah. I think David usually opts for “putain!!!” while driving (although I have heard enculé quite a few times myself). And for those less serious situations, a “n’importe quoi” muttered under one’s breath.

    I must say though, I miss old people that shake their fist when they’re mad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone pull that move in France.

    Comment by kim — January 26, 2005 @ 4:08 pm

  6. Too right. Here in France you put your foot down when the light turns to yellow. Stopping in orderly English fashion will only get you rammed up the back and deserve to be called an enculé.
    I’d been driving here for 10 years and had never seen anybody stop for a pedestrian on a crossing before I learned to my absolute gobsmacking amazement that you ARE supposed to, just like in UK.
    Driving in Paris is simple if you just remember:
    a)Never look in the rearview mirror. The driver behind you is big enough to look after him or herself
    b)Watch out for pirates at three o’clock = priorité à droite insisting traffic piling in from the right. Refusing priority is much more serious than adultery here, on a par with drinking somebody else’s pint in Yorkshire.
    c)Never leave a ‘safe’ distance in front of you. Parisian drivers, proving that nature abhors a vacuum, will fill that roadspace if you don’t want it.
    I voted for you because this is the consistently best blog ever and also because of the pyjama shot. So when do we get to see it?

    Comment by Parkin Pig — January 26, 2005 @ 4:38 pm

  7. I will give you the secret weapon of Parisian driving :

    The NUMBER ONE RULE in the Arc de Triomphe roundabout is, do NOT, under ANY circumstances, EVER, EVER, make eye-contact with the other drivers.

    If you do, they know you will slow down.

    Ideally, it is recommended to not even turn your head or glance in the mirrors, particularly to the left.

    Keep up a steady speed, make no sudden moves, and you should be fine.

    Think glacier coming down the mountain, irresistible force, or even, if I can be iconoclastic and gauche, tsunami.

    Good luck.

    Comment by Mathieu — January 26, 2005 @ 5:00 pm

  8. Oh, and I can’t believe you didn’t take the opportunity to mention the wonderful “priorité à droite” rule – though that probably merits a post all of its own.

    Comment by witho — January 26, 2005 @ 5:19 pm

  9. I am so glad that Mathieu mentioned the importance of (no) eye contact in battle. Works the other way around, too, for the pedestrian. You step confidently into the busy street, select a car and driver coming towards you, make eye contact, and that’s it. Cross the street at leisure. Is fool proof, but one must not be timid.

    Here in Germany, the perfect weapon in traffic is a pram. Every driver’s worst nightmare is hitting a pram, even more than hurting a bicyclist. Armed with a pram, the waves will part for you, any time anywhere.

    With regard to the l’Etoile roundabout, up to 1985 or so, the cars going into the roundabout had the right of way. Was more fund somehow and pushed the adenalin up. Mathieu’s rule was essential, too. Then the ruling changed. The Herad Tribune commented on the event predicting that “carnage” would ensue.
    Somehow everyone seems to have survived.

    carry on, Petite Anglaise, your blog is great fun.

    Comment by Marquise des Anges — January 26, 2005 @ 6:22 pm

  10. I’d steer clear of buying the car in the picture, if I were you.

    I reckon it’s made of two cars welded together.

    Comment by JonnyB — January 26, 2005 @ 6:23 pm

  11. When my sister came to visit, armed with her brand new camcorder, I took her to see a lovely building in Brighton. When I turned around to see if she was following me across the road to get into the said building, I saw that she was still on the pavement and that she was filming. The cars stopping at the pedestrian crossing in front of the gorgeous building. She couldn’t stop talking about it afterwards. The cars stopping, that is.

    Comment by céline — January 26, 2005 @ 6:46 pm

  12. Enculé actually means to be read-ended

    Comment by adrian — January 26, 2005 @ 8:07 pm

  13. The eye contact stratagies are effective in any city within the US.

    Comment by Bob — January 26, 2005 @ 9:02 pm

  14. I think Adrian means rear-ended. (Shunted up the back).

    Comment by Parkin Pig — January 26, 2005 @ 9:25 pm

  15. I know what enculer means literally, people.

    But when it’s used as a noun I think asshole isn’t bad. Perhaps Céline over at Naked Translations can enlighten us all?

    Comment by petite — January 26, 2005 @ 9:39 pm

  16. When I was living outside Paris I made a point to take Anglo-Yank visitors for a trip round and round the roundabouts. It always made me smile, enjoying driving there as much as I did. Behind the wheel, I found the French — in town or on those narrow country roads — pleased and enjoying their athletic or balletic abiilty; there was little of that bust-a-gut and flip-the-bird style I find here in New York.

    Comment by Cliff Steward — January 27, 2005 @ 12:21 am

  17. Love the blog, have been poping over for a while. Always a laugh to be had. I used to spend time in Paris when I was younger.
    Anyway, The view of space is also very valid in Brussels where they too, untill recently (90’s I think) had the priority to enter the roundabout.
    It could scare the living daylights out of you as you could have some small streets with a wee roundabout at a junction. Once gotten used to, you just drive.

    Comment by andy — January 27, 2005 @ 5:23 am

  18. The most shaming insult that was ever hurled at me when driving in France – in the Var, near St Tropez – was ‘Parisien’, this when I accidentally cut a guy up on a roundabout. I told local friends & they felt it necessary to sit me down with a Pernod & a little light counselling.

    Comment by Dick Jones — January 27, 2005 @ 7:41 am

  19. Check out Bozzetto’s flash animation for a hilarious look at driving in Italy. I testify it is ALL TRUE.

    I’m inured to driving in Rome now, although when I started, I would be shamed by my two-year-old in the back seat copying my outbursts, ” ‘sole! ‘sole!”

    Comment by Ria — January 27, 2005 @ 9:45 am

  20. I would probably translate enculé as “fucker”… asshole seems a bit lighter than enculé to me.

    but then again, I get the feeling that naughty words in english are far more shocking than they are in french. I remember a time we went to visit David’s grandparents for tea, and he said “putain…” about something when we were there and I was just shocked, because I couldn’t imagine myself dropping such a bomb in front of my grandparents. I mean, my grandmother has been known to whip out with “sassafras!” when she’s annoyed with something!

    Comment by kim — January 27, 2005 @ 10:30 am

  21. Love this post, it’s all so true. And what about the peripherique? Isn’t it also true that to get there, you go through a gateway into a parallel universe where you are IN that driving game kids play on their TVs, but not on the level one stage you tried once when you managed to get halfway round the bend on the empty road before crashing into the barriers, oh no, on the peripherique you’re on level TWELVE with nowhere to hide and nowhere to run and cars coming at you from every side and the only thing you can do is clutch the steering wheel and pray?

    Comment by Zinnia Cyclamen — January 27, 2005 @ 11:18 am

  22. Can’t believe I’m sitting here thinking of translations for encule (can’t do accent in comments)! Fucker is the right level of insulting, but, ahem, doesn’t have the right connotations of passivity, loser… This idiot has his head up his arse?

    Comment by Jean — January 27, 2005 @ 12:40 pm

  23. April 1st 1984. The day when roundabouts changed from giving priority to those joining to those already on -in Brittany, anyway. I was shifting camping stores on that day around Quimper and saw countless accidents – none serious. And the eye contact thing is essential if trying to get someone else to slow down (i.e. octogenarians in “spoutniks”, for whom the roundabout system change never happened). Using pedestrian crossings: As mentioned above, stride purposefully (and apparently obliviously) out and hear those brakes squeal! NB – be prepared to perform an instant and humiliating leap backwards for the “encule” who calls your bluff. In my professional opinion (rarely called upon for such niceties of vocabulary, sadly) I agree that asshole is about as close as you’ll get for “encule” in yer actual highway-use situations. Fucker is simply too aggressive and as already mentioned, doesn’t include the passive connotation. The endless flexibility of the word “con” has always impressed me too.
    As a warning – following 22 years of blemish-free driving (officially speaking) – I have been flashed for speeding twice since Jan 1st. Makes me sound like a conscience-free child killer, but I promise it’s not the case, just witness to the demise of discretionary policing. Still, at least you can pay your fine from the comfort of your PC these days…

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — January 27, 2005 @ 2:01 pm

  24. Jim – If you note the IP address thoughtfully provided on the side of the speed camera, there is apparently a way to hack in and blur the numberplate on the photo.

    You didn’t hear it here first.

    Comment by petite — January 27, 2005 @ 2:14 pm

  25. Définitely when I want to say “enculé”, I say “w*nker”!

    Comment by Chninkel — January 27, 2005 @ 2:43 pm

  26. I dislike driving in London but it’s a picnic compared with Paris, and I’ll never forget an Italian driving ‘holiday’ that the boyf and I once took. Driving through the centre of Milan was a nerve wracking experience. It was so hard to tell where the road ended and the tram lines began. Rome wasn’t too bad, but what about those minuscule alleyways that you can actually drive through?

    Comment by stressqueen — January 27, 2005 @ 2:47 pm

  27. “cut out and keep swearing vocab in French:

    connard! – assehole!
    encul̩! Рasshole!
    fils de pute! – sonofabitch! ”

    Je suis Français et j’aime pas les Parisiens, c’est un pays à part je crois…. enfin bon j’habite dans une ville “banlieue” de Paris et ça devient un peu pareil!

    Comment by zeraw07 — January 27, 2005 @ 11:46 pm

  28. I’ve tried to be sympathetic.

    However, after driving in Athens (and thus, rekindling my relationship with my Deity), I would classify Paris as stroll in the park.

    Comment by Sigmund Carl and Alfred — January 28, 2005 @ 3:09 am

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