Paris, city of crazy drivers — and no stop signs

by / Friday, 28 June 2013 / Published in Book Excerpt, France, Paris

Capture d’écran 2013-06-28 à 12.00.40

After more than twenty-five years there are few things about life in Paris that surprise me. Except one. I still am totally astounded by the fact there are no stop signs in the city.

That’s right, no stop signs in Paris. One day I asked a policeman just to check. He confirmed the fact. There is not a single stop sign in the capital of France. Paris is a city of crazy drivers – and no stop signs.

I’ve actually heard that there may be one stop sign somewhere in a discreet corner of the posh 16th arrondissement. If this rumour is true, I may make a special pilgrimage to the location in tribute to the unique sign of pragmatism in a city otherwise governed by the perilous rules of moral chaos.

Every intersection in Paris is a mad free-for-all where you enter at your own risk – sometimes with potentially fatal consequences. Too frequently I read with dismay that yet another elderly lady was run down while crossing a small road on her way home from the boulangerie. The same news regularly comes on the radio in Paris: a teenage girl crossing the road in the 20th arrondissement, a mother pushing a pram across the street near Parmentier, an old man stepping off the pavement in Courneuve – all run over and killed by reckless drivers who fled the scene. The carnage never ends.

For French drivers, there is only one rule: priorité à droite. All drivers in France know this rule. The priorité à droite rule dictates how drivers must react when approaching an intersection. They must cede the way to drivers coming on the right. Drivers on the right always have the priority. Drivers coming from the left must slow down and let drivers on the right proceed through the intersection.

Capture d’écran 2013-06-28 à 12.03.16This rule makes no sense to me, but it obviously makes sense to the bureaucrats in the French Department of Transport. In practice, however, nobody stops at intersections. There are no stop signs – why bother stopping? Pragmatically, the rule is utter folly.

All you have to do is stand at any intersection in Paris for fifteen minutes and you will witness the moral chaos. Cars do not stop at intersections in Paris. The priorité à droite rule puts in the driver’s mind only one concern: that no cars are coming from the right. Pedestrians are the least of their concerns. After a quick glance to the right, they roar through the intersection without having stopped. No wonder old ladies crossing the road, small children, dogs and cats – all are all potential victims of this absurd priorité à droite rule.

The moral chaos of Parisian traffic is best observed at large roundabouts, especially the mad bumper-car lunacy that swirls frenetically around the Arc de Triomphe. Here there are no rules – it’s every man (and woman) for himself. Many times I have found myself circling the Arc de Triomphe, every time my heart starts thumping as I’m approaching the ordeal. I now do everything to avoid it.

If Parisian drivers are notoriously cranky, discourteous and reckless, it’s not much better in the rest of France. One day while taking Oscar and Leo across the road at a zebra crossing in Fontainebleau, I suddenly turned and, to my horror, saw a car roaring straight at us. I was petrified. Instead of lurching forward with the dogs, I stopped and confronted the driver with a furious hand gesture. The car swerved and screeched to a stop. I angrily marched over with Oscar and Leo in tow, bent down to look inside the vehicle, ready to get into a shouting match. To my stupefaction, sitting behind the wheel was a young, attractive woman. What’s more, she had two small children in the back seat.

“Are you crazy, lady? Driving like a lunatic with two small children in your car?”

You would think my rebuke would have embarrassed her. Not at all. She was infuriated. Hearing my slight English accent, she gave me the finger and shouted: “Go home to your own bloody country!” She then roared off just as recklessly, turning down the Fontainebleau high street like a Formula 1 racing car driver. Another rebellious spirit let loose on France’s roads.

The drivers in the south of France are even worse, as I witness during summer holidays in Provence. Even by Parisian standards, drivers in the south of France are absolutely mad. They take hairpin turns at hair-raising speeds. If they are directly behind you on a rural road while you have the effrontery to keep to the speed limit, you are treated to rude honking, exaggerated hand gestures, and violent verbal abuse. Cars with “84” licence plates for the Vaucluse are the worst. The locals here are devoid of even the most basic courtesies behind the wheel of a car. When I see an 84 plate behind me I get out of the way because I know a lunatic is coming. It’s something they don’t tell you about in all those lavender-coloured travel books about the paradise of Provence.

For decades the French government has been struggling with the problem of reckless driving. France’s motorways are cluttered with speed-trap cameras that photograph licence plates and dispatch fines to delinquent drivers. Yet the 12-point permit has only aggravated the problem by creating a nation of de facto criminals. More than two million French drivers are on the roads with no permit because they have lost all 12 points. Here’s an even more alarming statistic: every year some 4,000 people die in road accidents in France. That’s double the number in Britain – even though both countries have roughly the same population.

It’s not as though there weren’t enough policemen in the streets to enforce driving infractions. The stern face of authority is everywhere –the authoritarian notion of contrôle permeates everything in French society. Even your identity is subject to contrôle. If stopped by a policeman you’d better have your carte d’identité nationale. Or if you’re a foreigner like me, some form of identification such as a passport.

Vos papiers s’il vous plait” is the familiar phrase used by French police. They can legally demand an identity card on just about any pretext, including that you present a danger to “public order”. If you cannot justify your identity, you may be making a trip to the police commissariat so they can establish who you are.

As a foreigner who is frequently shocked by the recklessness of the roads in France, I’m un unlikely candidate for a police contrôle at the wheel of my car. But ironically, that’s exactly what happened one afternoon while driving through Paris after a walk with Oscar and Leo in Parc Montsouris. Built during the Second Empire in the jardin anglais style cherished by Napoleon III, the Parc Montsouris is one of the few dog-friendly parks in the French capital. Instead of the rigid geometry of most Parisian parks, it has no obvious form or design. Everything is natural and spontaneous, with footpaths going round vast stretches of grass that are not forbidden to visitors. Giant weeping willows cast heavy shadows over a large pond that serves as a sanctuary for ducks, geese and heron.

The Parc Montsouris is a friend to canine liberty, devoid of interdictions. No one ever asks you to show your identity card. The drive home through the city, however, can be fraught with reminders of the inescapable presence of authority in France.

I’d bundled Oscar and Leo into my small grey Peugeot and was gliding down boulevard Raspail towards the Seine. Suddenly my mobile phone went off. I looked down to see who was calling. It was my stepson David, ringing from London. David was now a teenager, no longer the small child he was when his mother died. With the passage of time he was reaching out to me less and less. When he took the trouble to call, it was important.

I knew the law, of course: no using mobile phones at the wheel of your car. It made perfect sense. But like most traffic laws in France, this one was generally flouted. I’ve seen drivers in Paris attempting to parallel park in reverse while talking on a mobile phone and smoking a cigarette simultaneously.

I reached over, grabbed the phone on the passenger seat, and put it to my right ear.

“Hi David, I’m in my car – I’ll have to call you back.”

“Wait a minute, I need to ask you something!”

I noticed two police officers on the pavement. One of them was a policewoman. And she was staring right at me.

“David, I’ve got to go – sorry, the police are about to stop me.”

I switched off my phone and tossed it on the seat. It was too late. The policewoman was now pointing and signalling for me to pull over.

“Oh fuck,” I groaned.

I drew up and pressed the button to roll down the window on the passenger side. It was now the policewoman’s male colleague who was in my face.

Arrêtez votre moteur,” he commanded. I complied, switching off the engine.

Vos papiers s’il vous plait.”

I handed him my driver’s licence. Oscar and Leo, sensing I was in a spot of bother, started barking madly in the back seat. The cop bent over and peered into the back seat. When he saw Oscar and Leo, he registered a look of mild amusement.

“You were on your mobile at the wheel of your car, sir, that’s an infraction,” he said. “I have to verbalise you.”

That was the word he used: verbaliser. It literally means a verbal rebuke, but it’s much more. When a driver is verbalised in France, it means a fine and lost points. This worried me. Drivers in France start with 12 and lose points with each infraction. When the points are ground down to zero, the permit is automatically revoked. I’d already lost several points commuting between Fontainebleau and Paris. There are three speed limits in that short forty-minute drive – 90, 110, and 130 kilometres per hour. Unlike the canny French, I am unskilled at adjusting my speeds to comply with these constantly changing limits. I’d been flashed a few times at least. I wasn’t sure but guessed that my twelve points were probably down to eight, maybe seven.

I tried to explain that it was my son in England calling, and that I was telling him that I couldn’t talk. The cop was unmoved.

“How many points do I lose for this?” I asked.

“Three points,” he replied curtly.

The French police had got their man. I was now counted amongst the reckless Parisian drivers – one of the lunatics on the roads. And I was also down three points.