8: Motor Vehicles

Driving in France will present a minimum of problems to most drivers. It is legal to drive on your home home country driver’s licence for up to a year, after which time you must apply for a French license. Americans who have been issued a valid driver’s license from Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Florida or South Carolina, (or an EEC/European Union license), may exchange their license for a French one without passing a test, but only within the first year after the official date of entry into France. You may still retain your US driver’s license upon request.

Extra caution should be exercised when beginning to drive, as you will probably be unaware of certain specific driving rules and regulations, and as many of the traffic signs and/or notices will be somewhat perplexing. Do not let the French drivers’ passion to speed, tailgate and practice other unsafe driving habits deter you or force you to drive faster than a speed at which you feel comfortable. In these instances, it is suggested that you put your blinker on, drive to the side of the road, and let them pass.

The information that follows will help you understand the French driving system and hopefully, make your driving less of a mystery.


The following three items must be in your possession while driving. However, due to the difficulty that would be encountered in the event that your car is stolen, it is recommended that you DO NOT keep items 1 and 2 in the glove compartment of your car:
• A valid permis de conduire (driver’s license). (See next page.)
• The car’but only within the s carte grise (car title/registration paper). (See next page.)
• The car’s vignette assurance (proof of insurance sticker), provided by the insurance company, must be displayed inside the car windshield. Autoinsurance is mandatory. The policy should cover unlimited civil liability, defense, appeals, theft, fire, and collision. Depending upon the liability, a 1- to 3-months advance notice is required to cancel or transfer a policy. (For more information inquire at the insurance company of your choice. The vignette assurance is also known internationally as a “green card”. This means that your insurance is valid in most European countries. See your policy for restricted countries.)

It is also recommended that the following items be kept in the car at all times:
• A constat amiable d’accident (accident report form), available from the auto insurance company, along with a pen for filling out the form
• A disposable camera with flash, for documenting any damage.
• A distress signal – triangular reflector.
• Spare bulbs for the headlights and brake lights.

Driver’s licences and cartes grises can be obtained at the Préfecture, 1 rue Sainte Anne, 31000 Toulouse.

Permis de conduire (Driver’s license)

Americans who have been issued an EEC/European Union license or a valid driver’s license from Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Florida or South Carolina may exchange their license for a French one without passing a test,but only within the first year after the official date of entry into France. You may still retain your US driver’s license upon request.

Americans who have not been issued an EEC/European license or a valid driver’s license by one of the above-mentioned states are required to pass the French driving test if they will be residing in France for more than one year. Some Americans choose to take their chances, and continue to drive past the one-year mark with a US license from a state other than those listed above. Please be advised that, in case of a serious accident for which you are found at fault (especially one involving injuries), doing so makes you vulnerable to charges of having been driving with an invalid license.

A non-French driver’s license is valid for one year after the date of official entry into France. For people who will be residing in France for less than one year, your home country or international driving license is sufficient, under the following conditions:
• Must have been issued by the home country.
• Must be valid in the home country.
• Must have been obtained prior to the application for a French residency card.
• Must be written in French or accompanied by an official translation (an International License). This requirement is not usually enforced when drivers’ licences from the USA are presented to officials.
• The holder of the license must be 18 years of age, the legal French driving age.

A British photocard driving licence may be used in France, and need not be exchanged for a French one. However, it is advisable to register your British license at your local Préfecture.

After the completion of one year of residency, a non-UK foreign resident must exchange his/her home country driver’s license for a French license.

Some Americans postpone the procedure of getting a French license for yet another year or two by obtaining an “international” license issued by the AAA in your USA home city. This license is valid for just one year. By going to a second branch you may be able to obtain a second “international license.” (We are unsure of the validity of this method of extension, both for driving and in relation to insurance coverage, as some officials have said that such licenses are not valid in France.)

For those who wish, or need, to get a French license, both a code de la route (written) test AND a test de conduite (driving test) must be taken. Check with your employer on whether they offer special sessions to help obtain a French driver’s license (Motorola does).

Auto école (driving schools) are located throughout Toulouse and its suburbs; they provide the opportunity to take practice tests, in French, in preparation for the final written examination. It is possible, though more difficult, to apply for a French license without being enrolled in a driving school, as a candidat libre. In this case, an examination file must be sent to the Préfecture and contain the application, photos d’identité (identity photographs) and a timbre fiscal (tax stamp). “Leftover” American passport photos should not be used for official French documents, as the format is different from French ID-photos taken in the photo booths (color or black-and-white) found in supermarkets, malls and at the Préfecture.

You are required to provide a dual-driver car on the day of the exam. You may have a translator accompany you on both test dates, however due notice of such an arrangement must be given to the Préfecture.

American companies in Toulouse have been known to use Euro Cil Mobilité (Tel 05 61 14 52 90) to help their employees acquire French driver’s licenses. Another possibility is Fehrenbach’s Driving School, in Paris (15 boulevard Henri Selier, Pont de Suresnes, Tel: 01 45 06 31 17).

Carte Grise (Car Title and Registration)

The carte grise is required for registering a vehicle and must be in the car whenever the vehicle is in use, (but not necessarily in the glove compartment). Papers required for obtaining a carte grise differ depending upon how the car was purchased, i.e. from a car dealer, from an individual or purchased outside France. It is a good idea to have a photocopy of the carte grise somewhere at your home or office, in case of loss.

The carte grise, by law, must be carried in the car at all times when it is being driven. If the carte grise is lost or stolen, report it to the police immediately and secure a duplicate from the Préfecture. A change of address must be registered with the carte grise or local Gendarmerie within one month of the relocation.


A car dealer will provide a temporary carte grise valid for two weeks after the date of sale/purchase. The dealer requests a permanent carte grise from the Préfecture. The new owner must provide the dealer with a copy of their carte de séjour and proof of residence for submission with the request for the permenant carte grise. If both spouses are listed on the temporary title, then copies of both cartes de séjour must be provided.

When purchasing a used car, the buyer must be given a certificat de contrôle technique, a diagnostic test that determines its mechanical condition.

Documents needed to register a vehicle purchased from a car dealer:
• Temporary title (valid for 2 weeks) • certificat de contrôle technique
• Application for carte grise • Proof of residence
• carte de séjour (copy)


If buying a car in a private sale by a particulier (individual), the seller must provide a certificat de vente (bill of sale) and a certificat de non-gage (title clearance) that had been issued to the seller by their Préfecture. The certificat de non-gage is only necessary if the buyer lives in a different Préfecture district (different Département) than the seller. The seller must also cross out their name as owner and mark “VENDUE” (sold) on the back of their carte grise. The buyer must present the seller’s carte grise, certificat de vente, and certificat de non-gage to their Préfecture within 2 weeks of the purchase in order to have the title placed in their name. Certificates can be obtained from your local Mairie.

When purchasing a used car, the buyer must be given a certificat de contrôle technique, a diagnostic test that determines its mechanical condition.

Documents needed to register a vehicle purchased from an individual:
• certificat de vente (bill of sale) • certificat de contrôle technique
• certificat de non-gage (title clearance) • Proof of residence
• Seller’s carte grise • carte de séjour (copy)
• Application for carte grise


Registering vehicles brought into France require some extra paperwork. In addition to an application for a carte grise, the owner also needs “Form 846”. (A Customs Agent issues Form 845 once the vehicle has cleared customs.) If the vehicle is 5 years old, it must be inspected in order to obtain an anti-pollution certificate, le certificat auto-bilan.

Also required is the CURRENT original registration from the home country, a tax stamp timbre fiscal, a certification from the vehicle’s manufacturer attesting to the vehicle’s conformity to European Union regulations (‘E’ mark) and a technical form detailing the characteristics of the vehicle. The Préfecture will respond within 2 months of the request.

Documents required to register a foreign vehicle brought into France:
• application for carte grise
• Form 846 issued by a Customs Agent
• auto-bilan if vehicle is 5 years old
• registration from the home country
• timbre fiscal (tax stamp), which can be purchased at a tabac
• certification from car manufacturer
• technical form detailing characteristics


The license plate number (numéro d’immatriculation) appears on the registration title and carte grise. The plaques d’immatriculation (license plates) can be purchased and installed at almost any gas station or auto service center; car dealerships also provide the service, (usually at no extra charge, as their plaques include the name and location of the dealership). The plates are riveted in place and will not change during your ownership of the vehicle, unless you move from one département to another – like from Haute Garonne [31] to Gers [32].


Definition: ‘priorité à droite’ = Whether at a simple crossroad, multi-road intersection or roundabout, the right of way is given to the car on the right. (The exception is at roundabouts in every French town, in which case the cars on the roundabout have priority. Drivers beware!)

Almost every intersection in the USA has a light, stop sign, or yield sign. Not so in France. Although there are many more road signs than was the case only ten years ago, many crossroads remain unmarked. For this reason, and because the driver coming from the right may not notice a yield sign, it is always safest to follow the “golden rule”: ANY AND ALL CARS TURNING ONTO YOUR LANE FROM A SIDE STREET TO THE RIGHT, HAVE RIGHT OF WAY. This applies in town and in the country.

The traffic sign indicating the exception to this rule is a diamond-shaped sign (yellow with a white border) which indicates YOU have priority at all intersections until you come to a similar sign having a diagonal bar across it, indicating the end of the “priority” zone:

An inverted triangular sign (white with a red border), marked “CEDEZ LE PASSAGE”, indicates that you do NOT have priority and must yield to traffic on the other road (from the right OR left). Another sign that indicates that you do not have priority and must yield to oncoming traffic from the right at the NEXT intersection is a triangular sign (white with a red border) marked with an “X”. An upright triangular sign (white with a red border) with a wide vertical arrow pointing up crossed by a thinner line indicates YOU have priority, but only at the NEXT intersection:

Although priority-related signs are, for the most part, logically posted, at times a more heavily travelled road must give the right-of-way to a smaller side street. (See “Reading the asphalt”, below.)



Americans are not accustomed to reading the asphalt for important information that is usually found on a signpost in some regions of the USA. In France, one must pay close attention to markings painted onto the asphalt, especially for roads coming from the right.

Le code de la route”, the official French Drivers’ Manuel, is available in most bookstores. Written in French, it explains French road signs and regulations.

A Cédez le passage (yield) marking on the asphalt is a white dotted line (a series of squares) across a side street; a yield sign may or may not accompany this dotted line. A solid white line indicates a full stop (with or without the stop sign). If driving along a heavier congested road unmarked for priority, always check the asphalt for roads coming from the right. (All side streets to the left give YOU the right of way.)

Most rond points (traffic circles/roundabouts) give priority to the car ALREADY IN THE TRAFFIC CIRCLE, indicated by an inverted triangular-shaped sign (white with a red border) with 3 arrows going around in a circle. (A white dotted line is also marked on the asphalt where such roads meet a traffic circle.)

When the car is in motion, the driver and all passengers, in both the front and rear seats, must have their seat belts fastened at all times. Children under the age of 10 must ride in the back seat. Young children and small infants must be in a child-restraining seat or special baby carrier. (Although you will observe that these consignes are not respected by many French drivers, in the case of an accident involving injuries, the liability for not having obeyed the law can result in criminal prosecution.)

Speed limits, (10 km/h lower in rainy weather) unless posted otherwise are:

Autoroute 130 km/h
Divided Highway 110 km/h
Country Roads 90 km/h
Town/City 50 km/h

Many people choose to display an ”F” sticker on the back of their car when driving outside of France, indicating that you come from France. Stickers can be purchased wherever automobile accessories are sold. An ”A” sticker indicates a new driver.


THE LEFT LANE IS RESERVED FOR PASSING ONLY. (Although there is no signpost to indicate this rule, it is nonetheless in the code book and a fineable offense.) French drivers do not honk at one another to communicate; they flash their headlights. On a 2-lane road, a car following you and flashing its lights means “Please get into the right lane, I would like to pass you.” On a single lane road it means “Could you please slow down a bit and move to the right side of the lane, I would like to pass you.” If an oncoming car flashes its lights it might mean: “There are police further down the road, slow down” or “I’m passing a car and I’m in YOUR lane, I think I can make it but slow down anyway”. In all cases there is no latent anger or stress, just a passing on of information.


Paid parking on the streets is indicated either by the sign payant or a sign indicating a horodateur (parking ticket meter). Parking spaces that are outlined in blue, are also payant, whether or not there is a sign. Locate the parking ticket meter, and put in the correct amount of change for the durée de stationnement souhaitée (length of time you want to park). The machine will print out a ticket indicating when it expires; the ticket must be displayed in your windshield. There is generally a 2-hour limit; parking is usually gratuit (free) from 12:00-14:00, on Sundays and national holidays.

Most parking garage entrances have a ticket-dispensing machine. Press the button to receive a ticket. Retrieve your ticket and proceed through the raised gate into the parking garage. After parking your car take this ticket with you. Before returning to your car, locate the caisse (automatic payment machine) near the entrance, place your ticket in the slot and pay the amount shown on the digital display. All machines accept coins and most also accept carte bleue over a certain amount. The machine will return your validated ticket and any change due. If there is a problem or if you only have bills, you may pay to the attendant in the office, located at the drive-through exit or entrance to the parking. Exit the parking garage within 10 minutes, using the ticket in the machine at the drive-through exit to raise the barricade.

Secured, off-street parking is highly recommended for anyone planning to live in downtown Toulouse.


As in most all other countries, a driver who does not conform to French traffic regulations is subject to a fine and/or penalty. The amount of the fine, and/or nature of the penalty will depend on the offense. In such cases, the driver will be obliged to exchange their US/UK licence for a French one so that the penalty can be applied.

A point system is used for recording motoring offenses. All drivers begin with 12 points, with from one to eight points are deduced for each violation, depending on the gravity of the offense. Minor speeding offenses or failure to wear a seat belt would result in the deduction of one point; three points would be deducted for more serious speeding offenses, for dangerous passing or the crossing of a solid white line. Drunken driving, or driving without a permit costs six points, and so on. The points are restored after three years with no other offenses, or may be regained by undergoing a training course to brush up on your driving (for which you have to pay). If you lose the full 12 points, your licence will be revoked for a minimum of six months.

Parking tickets indicate both the violation and the applicable fine. There will be a check in a box next to the type of offense with an amount indicated on the right. Check the small print for the due date, as fines increase with time. The fine can be paid by purchasing a timbre fiscal (tax stamp) at a tabac. The person from whom the tax stamp is purchased will remove the carbon copy of the ticket and give a receipt for the purchase. The tax stamp must be glued within the small square marked “timbre”. Attach a postage stamp to the ticket and mail the stamped ticket at any post office or mailbox.


If your vehicle is not where it was left, it may have been towed or carried away. All vehicles towed in Toulouse are taken to 265 avenue des Etats-Unis (Tel: 05 61 47 43 21).


An English-speaking (British) full-service auto mechanic familiar with all car makes and models is: Graham Jones, 12 allée du Catchere, Colomiers (Tel: 05 62 74 05). He will, in cases of extreme emergency only, come to your home and service your car.

NOTE: Filling your car with the wrong gas can destroy your engine. Verify the type of gas your car should take.

Vocabulary – Automotive

Le plein, s’il vous plait ……………………… Fill it up, please
Sans plomb ……………………………………. Super (leaded) / regular (leaded) / unleaded
Gazole …………………………………………… Diesel
Voulez-vous vérifier… ……………………. Will you check…
L’eau / l’huile …………………………………. The water / the oil
Les bougies / les freins ………………….. The spark plugs / the brakes
Le carburateur ………………………………. The carburator
Le capot ……………………………………….. The hood
Le coffre ………………………………………. The trunk
Changer l’huile ……………………………….. Change the oil
Laver la voiture ………………………………. Wash the car
L’eau de la batterie …………………………. The battery water
Une crevaison ……………………………….. A flat tire
Changer le pare brise ……………………… Change the windshield
Changer le pot d’échappement ………….. Change the exhaust pipe
Plaques d’immatriculation ………………….. License plate
Contravention or Procès verbal or PV ….. Parking ticket
Sens unique ……………………………………. One way street
Stationnement interdit ………………………. Tow away zone
Où est la fourrière? ………………………….. Where has my car been impounded?

J’ai un problème ……………………………….. I am in trouble.
Pouvez-vous m’aider? ……………………… Can you help me?
Je ne sais pas pourquoi! …………………… I don’t know why!
Ma voiture est en panne. …………………… My car has broken down.
Vous êtes très aimable. …………………….. You are very kind.
J’ai crevé. ………………………………………. I have a flat tire.