Yes, you are getting your French driver’s license (with me!)

Ever since I resigned myself to getting my French driver’s license, I have dreaded taking the first step: “Code de la Route” (or “Road Rules”) lessons to prepare for the written portion of the driving test.

I haven’t dreaded it for the “I might not pass” factor. It’s because I can’t think of any thing I’d rather do less. Because, as everyone who has taken the test has told me, it’s not about knowing the rules. It’s about knowing how to answer the questions, which are designed to trick you. Which seems like a HUGE time waster to me, especially knowing that if I had lived a mere 30 miles away in Connecticut, instead of New York, I could have just traded my American license for a French one.

But when the Bourgueil police department phoned to see if—following the whole hoohaw about my license after my speeding ticket—I had secured my French one, and I had to say “no”, I booked my first class at the Bourgueil “Auto Ecole”. And then I thought of a way to do it that might actually be fun.


Never thought you’d be getting a driver’s license in France, did you? (Except for those of my expat readers who have.) So…if you’re ready for your first class, let’s have at it!

It’s Thursday night, 6:15, and you enter the Auto Ecole, which is a dismal shop-front space that has that particular bleakness of British mini-cab offices. (Can’t think of an American comparison.) Someone has draped a piece of cheap Afghan-scarf-looking cloth across the ceiling in the attempt to make the environment warmer, but has only succeeded in making it look like the bedroom of a frat-boy who spent last summer Eurorailing. There are ten people smoking outside, and the woman sitting at the desk has a pack of cigarettes sitting right in front of her, to signal to you where she’d rather be.

You sit down and give her the information she needs to fill in your application, and hand her your New York license and French identity card to photocopy. You have, however, forgotten to bring 4 passport photos and a book of 12 stamps, which makes the woman shake her head and stare mournfully at her cigarette box. You write a down-payment check for 218 euros, and think about what you could have spend it on if you had only lived in Connecticut.

There is a file sitting right in front of you with a passport photo of your daughter’s nanny’s teenage son stapled to it, as if to remind you of exactly how small your po-dunk town is. The woman hands you a Code study book, a notebook with lots of multiple choice circles printed in it (pictured above), and a pencil, and nods you towards a back room. (You have scheduled your drop-by to correspond with one of the four weekly Code lessons.)

You enter a dark windowless room with twenty chairs-with-desks-attached. The back two rows are filled with seven or eight farmers in their forties and fifties who look at you suspiciously since you aren’t instantly recognizable to them. A couple of women a bit older than you and a man your age are also there, as well as three teenage girls.

You wonder why the older folk are there, and remember hearing that if you get too many points taken off your license for infractions, you have to re-take the Code test. You stare at the women and man and think, “speeding tickets”, then glance at the guys telling dirty jokes in the back and think “driving your tractor drunk down the middle of the highway at dawn”. Their raucous laughter sends wine fumes in your direction and you pat yourself on the back for guessing correctly.

The receptionist comes into the room, starts a slide projector, asks anyone if they want to use handheld devices (you don’t take one because you still have no clue why you’re there), and then dashes out of the room, sticking an unlit cigarette in her mouth in preparation for her escape.

A multi-media sound, slide, and film presentation starts on one wall, and you copy everyone else and take out your pencil and answer-book. The questions and multiple choice answers (A, B, C, and D) are marked on the slide, but also read carefully by a man’s and woman’s voice, alternating. You realize a few questions in that there are sometimes more than one right answer, and try to go back and fill in the right answers for the first questions.

You soon run into your first quandary. They keep asking about different kinds of automobile lights and when they should be used. You guess they are referring to “fog lights”, “regular lights”, “parking lights”, and something called “positioning lights”. But you have no clue which is which or when they should be used.

Then come a few math questions. Like: “If you’re going … kilometers per hour, how many meters per second are you traveling?” Damn it…you’re going to have to memorize that one, since you can’t do math. And how about the one that asks, “If the kill-rate for hitting a pedestrian if you’re going 70 is 100%, what is the kill rate if you’re going 30?” Math questions should only be used to punish school children, you think, and then things get bizarre.

“What kind of tests can be used to detect cannabis consumption?” You translate the choices as “pee”, “spit” and “breath”. You have no clue, although you have heard of people having their hair tested for drugs. You check again. Hair is not an option. You mark “pee” just in time for the next slide to appear.

Two signs are shown at the entry to a village. One shows a cow and the other shows children running. You are asked what dangers you might meet ahead: a) domestic animals, b) wild animals, c) pedestrians, d) children. You know the difference between a pedestrian sign and a children at play sign, so ignore c) and choose d). But then you run into a problem. Does a cow qualify as an “animal domestique” or “animal sauvage”?

Doesn’t “domestic” mean the animal lives in your house? Cats and dogs are “domestic”. But, then again, cows aren’t exactly “wild”. You scramble for a definition for “wild” and come up with “something that people might shoot for sport.” Not cows. Then you decide that even if you wouldn’t let a cow in your house, it might at least hang out in your yard. “Domestic”, you mark.

After forty such questions, the answers suddenly flash up on the screen, and you scramble to compare them to what you’ve marked. Which is hard because you’ve had to scratch a lot of things out since you changed your mind at least twice during every question and there is no eraser on the pencil you were given.

Then the first slide flashes back up and the commentator takes a minute or two to explain the rationale behind each answer. You calm down and listen to each of his explanations. When he gets to the trick questions, his voice takes on a particularly haughty tone. You don’t know if it’s his annoying smugness or the trick answer itself that bugs them, but the farmers in the back are sent into a tizzy, and argue loudly with the slide-guy, making it impossible to hear his explanation.

The multi-media show ends, and you look over your answers. You got the cow question right, but groan over the fact that besides pee, pot can also be found in spit. Who knew? Out of 40 questions, you got 13 at least partially wrong. (Back home, Laurent confirms that you can’t get half-points.) If you miss more than 5 questions on the test, you don’t pass. You realize you’ve got a way to go.

After an hour, it’s all over, and everyone shuffles out of the room. The teenagers and farmers stay behind to stand in front of the oh-so-inviting plate-glass window to smoke, while you and the other not-really-licensed drivers jump into your cars and drive away.

5 Comments to Yes, you are getting your French driver’s license (with me!)

  1. by Alice - On October 7, 2010

    Yep, it’s those killer trick questions that get you… But it’s also true that after practicing for a few weeks, you start to get the hang of it. I have a practice DVD, a Michelin book and a website with practice simulated tests to thank for my managing to pass the actual CODE in the end — but in the beginning I didn’t think I would ever get there either! And those strange names for all the different kinds of lights; those killed me for a while as well.

    Now if only I could get past my anxiety and pass the actual examen pratique… My nerves have been killing my chances! I’m praying that the next time will be the right one, because I’m getting desperate!!

  2. by amy - On October 11, 2010

    Alice – BEST OF LUCK on the driving test! And congrats for getting the code.

  3. by Catherine - On November 8, 2010

    Due to work, I really need to get a license asap. But can you tell me how fluent you are in French? Mine is decent but weak. I am so worried about the written portion of the test.

  4. by amy - On November 12, 2010

    Catherine – I am pretty fluent. But still, road terms are a completely different vocabulary. I think the best is to memorize. Good luck@

  5. by - On June 29, 2013

    This page definitely has all the information I needed
    about this subject and didn’t know who to ask.

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