Road Safety in France

Road Safety
Don’t mess with the French police
British motorists might think they get a rough ride from traffic
police. But officers on the other side of the Channel have greater
powers and a less forgiving attitude, as Mike Rutherford discovered
Welcome on France’s roads. Just make sure you behave yourself
Behave: a French police brochure.

French police are less forgiving than their British counterparts
French police: less forgiving than their British counterparts. Photo:
Andrew Crowley

Most of us have been there – a wide, straight, smooth, seemingly safe
and eerily remote French motorway that almost invites you to put your
foot down. There’s barely a handful of other vehicles around and no
sign of speed cameras or traffic cops. There’s even a suspicion that
such autoroutes aren’t policed due to a shortage of road users – never
mind law breakers – to justify putting officers on the front line.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The French police are now
issuing warnings in the clearest, most uncompromising terms that
motorists driving illegally in their country will be identified,
apprehended and ordered to pay on-the-spot fines of at least 135 euros
(£104) in hard local currency.

You might consider yourself fortunate to be relieved of such
comparatively small sum. Should your offence be more serious – 181kph
(112.5mph) on a motorway with a 130kph (80.8mph) limit, for example –
you can expect a 1,500 euro (£1,159) fine. Dare to drive without
insurance and your fine will be 3,750 euros (£2,898). Driving without
a licence attracts a fine of 15,000 euros (£11,592). Some offences
lead to three-year driving bans and/or the seizure of vehicles and
even 12-month prison sentences. Driving under the influence of alcohol
or drugs attracts fines of thousands of euros and even longer
sentences; similar punishments are administered to those who refuse to
take breathalyser or drug tests.

It gets worse. Exceeding the speed limit by 51kph (31.7mph) and
causing an accident that puts somebody out of work for three months
will cost you 75,000 euros (£57,960) in fines and possibly the loss of
your car, a 10-year driving ban and five years behind bars. The French
are also pushing for a change in EU law so that, from 2010, penalty
points for offences committed on French roads would be added to the
driving licences of foreign motorists.

None of this will come as a total surprise to seasoned travellers who
for years have had their collars felt and their wallets emptied en
route to French holiday destinations or the Le Mans 24 Hours race. But
I doubt that many British drivers are aware of all the offences that
can be punished by on-the-spot penalties. Not carrying a warning
triangle in the boot and a high visibility jacket in the cabin
(preferably under the driving seat) are two recently introduced
examples. But you can also be fined heavily and banned for several
years for “failure to maintain a safe distance”, specifically 130
metres (142 yards) when travelling at 130kph.

You should already be aware that French motorways have lower speed
limits (110kph, or 68.4mph) in wet weather. But were you aware that
when visibility is down to 50 metres, the permitted top speed is only
50kph (31mph)? Ignorance of the law will not help you escape a fine,
and French traffic cops are cranking-up their enforcement/punishment
efforts. They have always been as tough as the massive boots they
wear, but they’re getting tougher still. Respect them, abide by local
traffic laws, remind yourself that they’re introducing more and more
speed cameras and you should be OK. Disprespect them, and you’ll be
clobbered. It’s a message they’re keen to get across and to that end I
was recently invited to join a group of British police officers as
they met their Gallic counterparts on French soil.

Never forget that the Gendarmerie Nationale is not a bunch of friendly
bobbies but a military police force numbering well over 100,000, many
of whom live in army-style barracks. They cover 90 per cent of French
territory, they have an annual budget of eight billion euros at their
disposal (more than £6billion) and their clout is immeasurably large.
Their official symbol is not an olive branch of peace but a grenade of
war.

They’re big on physical presence too, as demonstrated by Chief
Francois Maquinghen when he, his police motorcycle, his police car and
a police van loaded with lower-ranked gendarmes met me at our meeting
point alongside the autoroute near Calais.

Despite the language barriers, Maquinghen has no trouble making
himself understood. “In days gone by there may have been some
discretion when a driver was speeding. If he did, say, 145-150kph
[90-93mph] when he should have been doing 130… you know,” he said,
shrugging like only a Frenchman can. “But now it’s different. There is
no discretion at all. You will be stopped if you drive at around
150kph.”

And the punishment?

“Exceeding the speed limit by 20kph [12.4mph] means that you must pay
me a fine of 135 euros [£104]. Every time. In return I give you a
receipt. It’s the same for everyone, everywhere in France. And before
you ask, I do not earn a commission or bonus based on the number of
tickets I issue.”

One of the Chief’s junior colleagues bravely interrupts and emphasises
that on-the-spot fines are the “only solution” to the problem of
speeding motorists. The Chief doesn’t disagree.

So what happens if a motoerist genuinely disputes the allegations
levelled against him?

“In France, under French law, and in my position, everything I say is
the truth,” says Maquinghen, bluntly. “There is no requirement for me
to provide a driver with a photograph of himself breaking the law. We
need no pictures, nothing! If he disputes that I am telling the truth,
then he has to prove that I lied.”

That would be a difficult if not impossible task, whether you’e
dealing with the Chief or one of his armed colleagues at the roadside.
If they say you’re guilty, you’re guilty.

“We accept only cash. Euros only. Or a Euro cheque. But not foreign
currencies or credit cards,” Maquinghen adds, helpfully.

But what if a driver is returning home from a long holiday has spent
all his euros?

“If the relationship at the side of the road is good between him and
us, we will help him find an ATM. We may take him to the cash point
machine in our (but not his) car.”

And if the relationship is not so good?

“He can take a taxi or walk to the ATM. He cannot drive his car until
he has paid his fine.”

Maquinghen insists that he knows of no case in which a driver talked
his way out of paying-up, or of officers feeling so sorry for an
offender that the financial punishment was waived. If you commit an
offence, you pay, even if it means having the money electronically and
expensively transferred by your bank or a helpful relative from the
UK. The Chief recalls one driver who insisted that he couldn’t and
wouldn’t pay and tried to prove it by sleeping in his car for three
weeks. By week four he was not only fed up but increasingly concerned
that his car or even his home could be seized and sold in order to
meet the fine. So he paid.

“I understand that’s it’s not a happy moment for a driver when I stop
him at the side of the road and tell him that a radar or other device
has captured him and he has therefore committed a contravention,” says
Maquinghen. “He is probably a good guy in normal life. We arrive, he
is scared. I would be scared. But he needn’t be if he accepts he is
guilty of a contravention and immediately pays his fine.

“Sometimes an unhappy driver throws the ticket on the ground. Or he
resorts to bad words. But he cannot be unpolite. If he swears I arrest
him. If he tells me to ‘F*** off’ that’s a serious offence. More
serious than a mere traffic contravention. You can’t do it. I insist.
And we carry handcuffs in case we meet resistance.”

And guns…

“Yes we carry guns too. But to use mine I have to save a life,” he declares.

He approves of my description of him as a firm but fair professional
(with the emphasis on firm) and to show his appreciation he calmly
stops eight lanes of autoroute traffic so that I can do a
gendarme-approved U-turn rather than drive to the next junction and
change direction in more conventional fashion. The move was almost as
scary as the Chief himself. He didn’t even wear the hi-vis vest that
he requires ordinary motorists to carry.

The message was clear. Do exactly what the Gendarmerie Nationale tells
you to do. Or else.