A new immigrant to France is allowed to drive with his foreign license, but only temporarily. By the end of his first year, if he intends to continue legally (most do not), he is expected to have acquired a French license (permit de conduire). Although I have not driven since my arrival, and although I have no intention of buying a car, I might not mind renting one someday, and in preparation of this eventuality I resigned myself to submit myself to the earthly authorities and jump through the uniquely French hoops required to become an honest conducteur.

I started the process, perhaps not very helpfully, by reading Joe Start’s hilarious book French License. I recommend it to anyone wanting a glimpse into the web of absurdities that often deck the halls of French bureaucracy. An American married to a French woman, Joe describes in his book his ten year long process to acquire a driver’s license. His story is highly entertaining, but it can’t be said to give much in the way of courage or optimism to someone starting down the same path.

But surely that was an extreme case. I perused French YouTube to see what the natives had to say. The first step in the process is to pass the theoretical exam, called le Code de la Route. The video with the most views on the topic (18 million), informed me that the esoteric language used in the test is unknown even to the French. The video was made by a peachy-faced teenager, and was posted in 2011.

The video with the second most views (3 million), was posted more recently, in 2021. It shows an old man, unshaved, worn down by the trials of life. But on this day he is happy! He has just succeeded in passing le Code! But wait, this is strange. It seems like I recognize this guy. Why yes, it’s the same kid as in the first video! So that makes ten years for him, just to pass the theoretical.

When I mentioned my quest to various French acquaintances, they invariably gave me a look of sincere pity mixed with skepticism. Some gave me a “bon courage!” but others, overcome by traumatic memories, muttered “oh merde.”

I bought some books and signed up to the popular study site Ornikar. It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about. The depth of knowledge required, much of it possible only by rote memorization; the format of the test itself; and the intentional treachery of many of the questions means this is not something you’re going to breeze through after a cursory once-over of the materials, trusting on logic and common sense to get you over the areas you might have missed.

No, to have any chance at passing it is necessary to become a veritable savant of the French traffic code, not to mention an expert at their particular testing methods.

I will share a few questions from the practice tests so you can get an idea. This first one involves math, which you are supposed to enjoy doing in your head while tootling down the road.

Even if you don’t know French you can probably read the question(s) above, since the words are so similar to English. We are being asked in the first part if the distance between us and the car ahead is sufficient or not, and in the second part, more generally, whether the distance between any two cars should equal 1 or 2 seconds of travel time.

The second part is easy, we simply have to memorize the fact that 2 seconds is the rule. In fact, I believe the 2-second rule of thumb is the same in America.

The first part is a little more involved. Are we 2 seconds behind the car ahead? Who knows, that depends on how fast we’re driving. The dashboard is not shown, so we can’t see the speedometer. In cases where the speedometer is not visible, we must assume that we are driving the speed limit. Of course there is no speed limit sign visible in the photo either. We are required to deduce the speed limit based on other information. Having memorized every type and species of paint swab on the surface of a road, we will surely know that this photo was taken sur une route à double-sens, et hors agglomération. In other words, we have traffic moving in both directions on single paved road (as opposed to lanes separated by a divider or green space), and we are outside of the built-up city areas as can be seen by the lovely trees. It is not raining or foggy and we are on straight stretch. This means the speed limit is 80 km/h. Of course it could have been 50, or 90, or 100, or 110, or 130, but those are for different roads, paint swabs, conditions, vehicles and license types. You will have of course memorized all of them.

We know we must keep 2 seconds distance between us and the next car. We have deduced our speed. The process that follows begins by converting our speed in kilometers per hour into meters per second. The shorthand is to multiply the “tens” digit by 3. The “tens” digit here will be 8, multiplied by 3, equals 24 meters travelled per second. We need 2 seconds so that would be approximately 50 meters distance between us and the white car to be considered “sufficient.”

Now I’m an American, I have no idea what a meter is. The fact is, if you asked me to gauge 50 feet in a picture, I probably couldn’t do that either. But part of memorizing every type of paint swab on a road means memorizing their lengths. On this particular type of road the dividing line markers will be 10 meters long, with 3 meters distance between each mark. We could also use the markers on the side of the road, which we know are 3 meters long with a distance of 3.5 meters in-between. For a distance of 50 meters, and using the centerline marks as a reference, we should see at least 4 marks between us and the car ahead; using the lines on the side of the road we should see about 8. In the picture there are probably only two centerline marks or possibly 4 side marks, so the final answer is: No, we do not have a suffisante distance de sécurité.

Easy peasy! By the way, did I mention you only have 20 seconds to answer each question?

Let’s consider a question on the topic of les panneaux. The French love street signs, and you will have to memorize a few. There aren’t many, only about 300. This number is significantly augmented by all the possible combinations of panneaux which can alter their joint meaning. That’s to say nothing of the petit panonceaux, smaller signs that accompany and modify the original sign or in certain cases, a collection of signs.

Here is a question to do with parking:

There are quite a few rules related to parking in France, and if you have ever been to France, you know that none of them have ever been respected once. If the French could park vertically on a wall, they would do it. But barring that they are happy to park on the sidewalk, in the bike path, in the middle of the road, on your doorstep, on top of other cars, etc…

The question tells us that we are the last day of the month (the 30th). Must we park on the odd or even side of the street? And secondly, it is 8:00 PM. Can we move our car to the other side of the road?

Here we must know first of all that a round sign with a red border and a blue interior refers to parking or stopping. If there is a red X in the middle, both parking and stopping even briefly are forbidden. If there is only a single red line through the middle, as shown here, stopping briefly is permitted (in certain locations), but parking is forbidden, unless otherwise described. Here it is otherwise described by the numbers “1-15” and “16-31.”

These numbers refer to the days of the month. The first range “1-15” begins with an odd number (1) so the entire range refers to the odd side of the road (impair). The second range begins with an even number (16) so it refers to the even side of the road (pair). But which side of the road is odd or even? Wouldn’t that change depending on which direction you were travelling down the street? Yes, it would. For this reason we must look to the house numbers, and the side of the street with even house numbers will be the pair side of the road, and the side with odd-numbered addresses will be the impair side.

This sign tells us that from the 1st to the 15th of the month, we must park in front of odd-numbered homes. Don’t confuse yourself! If we happened to be the 12th of the month, even though 12 is an even number, it belongs to the odd number range, since 1-15 begins with an odd number! Likewise from the 16th to the 31st, we must park in front of even-numbered homes. Therefore, being the 30th of the month, the answer to the first part is “A” – pair des maisons.

Naturally there must be a time of the month where everyone has to move their car from one side of the road to the other. In this case it will be the night of the 15th, and the night of the last day of the month, which could be 28, 29, 30 or 31, depending on the month. They tell us we are the 30th, but not what month. However the question does say we are the last day of the month. If you missed that, and saw only the 30th, and assumed the last day of the month was the 31st because that is what is written on the sign, woe to you!

Well then, it’s 8:00 PM. Can we move our car? No! The mad rush can only take place between 8:30 and 9:00 PM. Hopefully you remembered.

What if the panel looked exactly the same, except the “1-15” range was missing? Like this:

Naturally this would mean that parking is permitted on either side of the road, but only from the 1st to the 15th. How logical. Parking will be forbidden from the 16th to the 31st, but only on the side of the road on which the sign has been planted (nothing to do with odds and evens).

This question actually could have been worse. It was only half-heartedly trying to trick us, and they were kind enough not to add any panonceaux, from which we might have had to deduce whether parking, when allowed, was either payant using a horodateur, or gratuit contrôlé par disque that you got from the mairie.

What? You say you have no idea what a disc is?

Yeah, that makes two of us.

Here’s a question that should theoretically be easy:

We are being asked how far away our rear running lights can be seen. No guessing here, we had to memorize it. Assuming we did, we know that our feux de position arrière are visible at 150 meters. We sélectionne answer C.

NO! Wrong again. For if the lights are visible at 150 meters, they are by definition also visible at 100 and 50 meters. The correct answer is A, B and C. Voilà.

How about the above – we are given two photos, and asked to select which one is more dangerous than the other. Be quick!

Time’s up. Couldn’t see any difference between the two? Me neither. However, if you had 20 minutes instead of 20 seconds you might have detected that someone did a poor photoshop job and added extra bushes to situation 2. These fake shrubs obscure the view of the road to the right, and make the upcoming intersection plus dangereux. Answer B.

Some questions are so vague the correct answer is simply not clear, no matter how much you know about the rules of the road. Consider the following:

First of all they don’t even give us the courtesy of asking a question this time, and it’s too bad because that might have given us a clue as to what they are fishing for. Nevertheless we obviously need to identify the correct comportement. From the answers I deduce this is a case of a narrow passage where someone needs to give way so the other can get through. But what is going on here? Why is the car directly in front of us parked in our lane? Is the van on the left advancing? Or is he stopped, equally as confused as we are? We will never know.

I decide to cède le passage while serre-ing à droite. Continuing to advance (B) implies a boldness that is usually the wrong answer even if it is quintessentially French, and I can’t stop (D) without blocking the road and making this bizarre scenario worse.

Wrong again! The answer is A, C, and D. You will stop after you move to the right. But how was I to know they wanted some kind of sequence of events?! That is not how the other questions work. In frustration I have now thrown my saucisson at the computer screen.

I mentioned earlier that the test uses language uncommon even among the French. I don’t know if this really makes it any harder for a foreigner who wouldn’t know what was common French to begin with. But here is a classic example:

Over half of all the roundabouts on planet earth are found in the tiny nation of France. The French word for roundabout is rond-point. It sounds logical to an English speaker. Heck, it even sounds logical to the French. And that is what everyone calls them.

But when you enter the world of le code de la route, what everyone calls a rond-point is not a rond-point. Oh no! It is a carrefour à sens giratoire. In English that means something like “a crossroads in the direction of whirling.” But absolutely no one uses that phrase, and before driving school most students have never heard it.

That is not to say there is no such thing as a rond-point. There is indeed, but it is a technical distinction, where cars entering the roundabout have the right of way, and cars already circling inside the roundabout must give way to allow them to enter. Naturally this arrangement is sheer madness, which is why you almost never see such a thing in real life: except for a few infamous examples in Paris.

So the word everybody uses for what are 99.9% of the roundabouts in France, actually describes the 0.1% bizarre exceptions; and the awkward phrase no one has ever heard of before, describes the thing which is seen everyday.

But anyone taking the test has been educated about such arcane trivia, and the rond-point controversy is one of the first things you learn to watch out for. We know better than to fall into a trap. Does the picture in the question above (as useless as it certainly is) show some six-lane monstrosity circling the Arc de Triomphe? No. This is the normal sort of roundabout one trips over every ten feet in France. Pleased for once that we were not bamboozled, we select A – this is a carrefour à sens giratoire.

BAM! Gotcha again! See that menacing warning sign with the black “X” of death in the middle? Didn’t you remember that is the sign for priorité à droite? By definition you will be to the right of anyone already circling the roundabout, you have the priority! You can blast right in and make everyone stop for you! It’s bien un rond-point, sucker!

Besides all the deliberate chicanery there are no shortage of straightforward questions that we find confusing because they refer to things which are unknown to a foreigner. One question will show a picture of an ambulance with blue lights flashing and we even get the helpful sound of sirens (the test includes audio). We are asked: does this ambulance have the right of way? How could it not! Someone could be dying inside! But no, the answer is No. In France there are many different kinds of ambulances, and many different kinds of siren sounds. Some ambulances are run by private companies (rather than the state), and these do not have priority. An American would have never known this. Of course just because they don’t have the priority, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grant them the right of way. If the question is, “Do they?” the answer is No. If the question is “Should you?” the answer is Yes. Another favorite shenanigan of the test writers.

Having spent half my life covered in grease underneath a car, I figured I should at least have no problem with les équipements. But lo and behold, even here I am stymied again. European cars (I should not have been surprised to learn) are not the same as American cars. Maybe worse, modern cars are not the same as old cars, and I really only cared about old cars. Here is a sample picture – what does this knob/gadget do?

I have no clue. Is it to dim the lights on the dashboard? No. Apparently it adjusts the angle of your headlights, to compensate for when you “charge your coffin with encumbering objects.” I have been driving for three decades and I have never heard of such a thing.

Much of the knowledge required has zero correlation to driving. We are shown the picture below and asked the question: When you blow into this thingy after drinking three beers, the chemical powders inside will turn to what color?

Good heavens! Won’t the police officer who arrested me know the answer? Must I be expected to do his job too, in my drunken state?

“It is very hot outside. Should you use the air conditioner?” No! It will kill the polar bears, roll down your windows instead.

“It is very hot outside. Should you leave your windows down while parked?” No! Someone might steal your purse.

These are actual questions which however have nothing to do with actual law. You are legally permitted to use the air conditioner (if your French clunker even has one), just as you are legally permitted to let your purse be stolen. But the test logic encompasses far more than the law. To pass you will have to know both the law and whatever le code considers the behaviors of a good citizen.

I could continue ad-nauseam but you get the idea. Suffice it say, there are lots of ways to get a wrong answer. The official test consists of 40 questions of which you can miss no more than 5 to pass. But as the examples above illustrate, many questions are actually two questions in one and there is no partial credit. In reality you need something approaching a 95% to pass. As already mentioned you are only given 20 seconds to answer each question; there is no option to skip the hard ones and come back at the end to ponder them at leisure.

After several months of studying I was starting to resent all this schoolwork robbing me of my precious free time. Didn’t I already go through all this silliness in my youth? The progress meter in my Ornikar account cautioned me that I wasn’t yet ready to take the test for real, but I decided to take my chances.

I inscrired myself with the local testing center and arrived on the appointed day. The other candidates were all little children fresh out of pre-school. Of course that’s not true, they were actually teenagers. My how young teenagers look these days! I stood out like a sore thumb, as usual.

There was some chit chat before the test and I discovered these little toddlers were already old veterans of le code. That is to say, they were veterans who had waged many campaigns and been vanquished each time. None had great expectations of succeeding this time either. Our proctor felt a responsibility to bequeath some inspiration to these fatalistic youngsters. Why he himself had succeeded in only 8 tries over three years! And that was only because he had taken a year-long break from discouragement, otherwise he could have had it in two!

We took the test. Afterwards, our results were read out in front of everyone. The girl sitting next to me, who told me she was there for the fourth time, failed the test by one point. She bravely held back tears. What about American grandpa? By some unfair miracle, I passed. Eh bien, j’ai eu de la chance, I muttered apologetically to the poor girl. I might have felt relieved if I hadn’t felt so guilty.

Well then, the code is done but we are still a long way from having a license. There is of course a driving test at the end, but you are not permitted to take it until you are “ready.” Who decides if you are ready? Would that be me?! Hey guys, I’m ready! I’ve been driving since before you were born!

Silly rabbit, that’s not how it works in France. It will be the auto-ecole who decides your readiness. The general consensus is they don’t normally consider you ready until they have depleted your savings account.

I hope therefore to write part two of this process someday, but don’t hold your breath, it might be a while.