Note that, if you wish to accompany a learner driver, you must obtain your insurance company’s permission. The cost of a course of 20 hours’ instruction, including the theory and practical tests, is around €675, although 16- to 25-year-olds can now obtain an interest-free bank loan to cover the cost. Almost 200,000 teenagers every year opt for the accompanied apprenticeship and 80 per cent of them pass compared with only 50 per cent of those who start learning as adults.
Irrespective of your age, you now have three years (previously two) to pass the practical test after passing the theory test and may take it up to five times during this period; if you fail it on the fifth attempt, you must retake the theory test ( code) as well as the practical (or give up). If you fail the practical test, you must wait at least two weeks (or a month if you fail at the second or subsequent attempt) before you may retake it. There are further courses available to those who pass ( stage post-permis), although uptake is understandably low.
Note that the practical part of the driving test has recently been increased from 20 to 35 minutes and, in accordance with new EU directives, tests will in future include use of a car’s instruments and systems, including checking tyre pressures and oil and water levels. New drivers have fewer points on their licences and must observe lower speed limits than other motorists for three years after passing their test.
Elder drivers in France
Drivers over 75 years of age must pass a medical examination every two years in order to retain their licence.
A standard car licence (called a permis B) also entitles you to ride a motorcycle up to 125cc, provided you’ve held it for at least two years (although you must retake the theory exam if you’ve held a licence for more than five years without riding a motorcycle).
Note, however, that you must have a licence E(B), for which additional training is required, to tow a caravan or trailer weighing more than 750kg (1,650lb) if it’s heavier than your car or if the combined weight of the car and caravan/trailer is more than 3.5 tonnes. If a caravan or trailer exceeds 500kg (1,100lb), it must be insured and have its own registration document.
A French driving licence is pink and contains a photograph. It’s issued for life, and recent proposals to make licences expire when the holder reaches the age of 70 were dismissed, as were suggestions that French licences should be superseded by European ones. However, if your foreign licence has limited validity (UK licences expire when you reach 70), you may be unable to renew it in the country of issue but must apply for a French licence.
How long can you use your foreign licence in France?
You can drive in France for at least a year on most foreign driving licences or an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). An IDP must be obtained from the country where your current licence was issued. (If you hold a French licence and want an IDP for driving in other countries, it can be obtained from your préfecture on production of your current licence and two passport-size photographs; it’s free and is valid for five years at a time.) The Second EU Driving Licence Directive provides, among other things, for the mutual recognition of driving licences issued by EU member states. If EU citizens move from one member country to another, it’s no longer necessary for them to obtain a local driving licence after one year.
However, a resident who commits a motoring offence in France involving a loss of licence points is obliged to exchange his foreign licence for a French one so that the penalty may be applied (non-residents escape the penalty but must still pay fines). Note also that most French officials (including gendarmes) are unaware of the aforementioned Directive and none too impressed when it’s quoted to them.
You can expect the procedure to take at least two months, so you should apply to your local préfecture or sous-préfecture well in advance (i.e. before your year is up or, if you’re an EU citizen, before your home licence expires). You will need a valid, translated driving licence, proof of residence, your carte de séjour (if applicable), two passport-size photographs, a self-addressed registered envelope and the fee (currently around €25) in the form of fiscal stamps ( timbre fiscal), obtainable from tobacconists’, as well as a copy of the penalty notice ( PV) if applicable.
Some non-EU countries and some US states (e.g. Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and South Carolina) have reciprocal agreements with France to waive the driving test, but applicants must take the written exam concerning rules of the road (including road sign recognition). If you need to take a driving test, it’s wise to take a course through a certified driving school, some of which have sections for English-speakers.
When you leave France
The French authorities will confiscate your foreign driving licence and return it to the country of issue or retain it and return it to you when you leave France permanently. However, you should take a copy of your foreign licence before surrendering it, as your French licence will show that you have been driving only since it was issued, which may make life difficult if you want to rent a car and could affect your insurance no-claims bonus.
If you’re a UK citizen and become resident in France, you should note that the DVLA won’t renew a British driving licence with a foreign address, so when it expires you must either give a fictitious address or exchange it for a French licence. In the former case, to prevent ‘misunderstandings’ with the police, you should obtain a form F.45 ( enregistrement d’un permis de conduire de l’Union Européenne), which you should staple to your UK licence; it’s free, but (like everything to do with motoring documentation) can take a long time to obtain. If your UK licence is due to expire, you should take the F.45, along with the documentation listed above, to the préfecture in order to be issued with a French licence (take a good book!).
If you lose your French driving licence or it’s stolen, you must report the matter to the police and obtain an acknowledgement ( récépissé de déclaration de perte ou de vol de pièces d’identité), which is valid until a replacement licence is issued. Note, however, that a replacement licence may cost twice as much as the original.
Points in France
Driving penalties in France are based on a points system. Drivers normally start with 12 licence points, and between one and six points are deducted for each offence, depending on its gravity. However, new drivers are allowed only six points for three years after passing their test (two years if they’ve followed an accompanied learning programme) and, if they lose any points during that period, they must wait three years from the date of the offence to obtain the remaining six points. If they lose all six points during the probationary period, their licence is suspended and they must wait six months before being able to retake their test.
When an offence is registered, you receive a letter of notification from the préfecture stating the number of points lost and the number remaining. Points are automatically reinstated after three years but, if you lose all 12 points within this period, you receive a demand to surrender your licence within a week to your local préfecture and you’re usually banned from driving for a minimum of six months (six years or more if you’ve been convicted of manslaughter). Depending on your record, you may need to pass a written test, a practical driving test and/or medical and ‘psychotechnical’ examinations to regain your licence.
You can reinstate four licence points at any time (but not more than once every two years) by undertaking a two-day ‘awareness course’ ( stage de sensibilisation) run by Améliorer la Sécurité et le Comportement des Usagers de la Route (ASCUR). All drivers who have had a licence for less than two years and who lose four or more points are obliged to take an awareness course, which costs €230 (but any fine you’ve had to pay is refunded!). To find your nearest ASCUR centre, contact your préfecture or visit www.securite-routiere.equipement.gouv.fr.
For more information about driving licences, contact the Ministère de l’Équipement, des Transports et du Logement, Arche de la Défense, 92055 La Défense (www.equipement.gouv.fr). The points system is explained in a booklet Permis à Points available from police stations and on www.permis-a-points.com.
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.