Driving in France as a foreign tourist is usually fine. It’s like any other country. It takes a bit of getting used to but after a while it’s just like home but with slightly different laws and driver quirks. Until you get to Paris or some other major towns that is. And, come to think of it, rural backwaters can be equally tricky. In fact, what am I saying? Driving in France can be an absolute minefield.
The reason? Priorite a Droite. Or, with the correct French accent marks; priorité à droite.
What is Priorite a Droite?
The archaic French driving law loosely means ‘give way to the right’. Vehicles entering the road from the right have the right of way over vehicles already on the road. Officially it hardly exists anymore but some French drivers will stubbornly follow it and it’s up to you to stop. Even if you’re travelling at speed on major roads.
Officially Priorite a Droite (or you may see it written as priorité de droite) doesn’t exist.
Or does it? Officially the rule of giving way to the right doesn’t apply unless specifically signposted. You will only see these signs on what are called ‘priority roads’.
And this is comparatively rare and usually found on minor roads and country lanes in rural areas. Though the most famous example of Priorite a Droite can be found around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The French road sign you need to look out for has a yellow diamond that is displayed within a larger white diamond. When you see that sign you are on a priority road and Priorite a Droite applies until you see the same sign with a black line through it.
Remember – when driving along a priority road you have priority over vehicles entering the road from the right. It’s borderline insane but it’s the law though even the French highway code doesn’t make a big thing about it.
French road signs
Describing the signs is all well and good but let’s see exactly what they look like.
Where does Priorite a Droite apply?
When you approach a junction in France and see a give way sign that means drivers joining the road from the right MUST give way. Which is what you would expect. However, as we’ve already discussed this isn’t the case on priority roads.
But it may not apply in some rural communes and in the centre of Paris. If you see a red triangle with a black cross (croix noire) in it that means you are approaching the next junction and YOU must give way.
This is Priorite a Droite in action and this overriding rule of the road also applies if you’re actually on the roundabout itself. This is why you see those amazing photos (like the one above) of Parisian traffic seemingly randomly pointing in all directions on the roundabout near the Arc de Triomphe.
Remember those motorists joining the roundabout won’t stop unless they hit something. Even then some will just carry on. Be prepared to hit the anchors and stop. Always look to your right for vehicles joining the roundabout or entering the junction as some French drivers are a law unto themselves.
Be aware at all times
The French government has probably spent millions of Euros on new road signs and public information regarding Priorite a Droite. And I’m sure the vast majority of French motorists understand and abide by the driving laws. But…
Priorite a Droite had been in place for many years and many drivers, and without trying to be stereotypical, most will be older motorists, pottering around small villages and still rigidly sticking to the practice. They couldn’t care less about new fangled road signs or laws.
When they are out on the roads Priorite a Droite still applies whether they’re on a priority road or not so you better pay close attention and make sure your brakes work.
If you’re driving on rural roads just be aware and always assume Priorite a Droite still applies. If you’re approaching a junction and can see a vehicle approaching from the right it is wise to assume they are not going to stop so slow down.
Hopefully the car will stop and any drama will be avoided. If you don’t and there is a collision you may be hard pressed not to have all the blame attached to you.
It’s not that bad… honest
I don’t mean to be alarmist but just be aware of Priorite a Droite. It’s an archaic law and the practice of giving way to the right is a bit bonkers. But I’m sure all will be fine and many tourists happily jump in their hired cars and enjoy a relaxing and stress free motoring holiday in France.
By and large, and especially when travelling on a main road or modern motorways (routes nationales), driving in France is a pleasurable experience. But do take extra care when travelling on minor roads or especially if you risk the insanity of driving around central Paris.
Roundabouts and junctions in Paris can be a nightmare and to be quite honest the first time you attempt to drive through the capital will be a nerve shredding experience. Especially if you’re used to the orderly traffic flow in UK or North American cities. Paris truly is something else.
But when driving in Paris just remember Priorite a Droite!
The Arc-de-Triomphe roundabout
As you can see from the photos above, twelve avenues radiate from this roundabout of madness and it has been said that from the moment a French motorist enters the Étoile, until the moments he escapes, his motor insurance is invalid.
No doubt such a story is apocryphal (or maybe it isn’t), but get a taxi driver to take you through, and you’ll understand why it might not be.
Your driver will barge in to the oncoming traffic with barely an acknowledgement of those who have – sans choix – given way, heading for the centre.
He’ll then dive for an exit with just a hint of ‘Ça ne fait rien’. It’s a brief whirlwind of insanity, excitement and teeth-gritting absurdity…and best seen from above.
On the way, don’t be surprised if you pass some becycled baguette-wielding daredevil who’s been in there for days, trying to find the way out.
Some useful translations when driving in France
This is by no means exhaustive but here are some useful phrases to keep an eye out for when driving in France concerning priorité de droite.
priorité de droite = right priority
refus de priorité = denial of priority
règle de la priorité (règle de priorité ) = priority rule
panneau de signalisation = traffic sign
cédez le passage = yield / give way
panneau de priorité = priority board
carrefour giratoire = roundabout
chemin de terre = dirt (minor) road
croix de saint-andré = St Andrews Cross
absence de signalisation = lack of signage
routes différentes = different roads
voies de circulation = lanes
usagers de la route = road users
bord droit de la chaussée = right edge of the road
sens inverse = reverse
panneau de danger = danger sign
signalisation horizontale = horizontal signage
abus de priorité = abuse of priority
forme d’un triangle = shape of a triangle
place de stationnement = parking spot
prochaine intersection = next intersection
garage privé = private garage
routes nationales = national roads
voie de droite = right lane