Learning to drive in France is different to the UK with lots of rules and regulations to adhere to. In our guide to the French driving test we explain all you need to know
As anyone who has spent any time in France will know, it is not a country where the authorities adhere to the KiS (keep it simple) philosophy. assing your driving test is no exception. the actual test is very much like the two-part theory and practical exam taken in the UK. it’s just there are rather a lot of hoops to jump through to get there – and if you should fail at any stage, potentially a lot of patience required.
Applicants must be at least 17 years old and resident in France. there is an option for a longer learning process with an identified experienced driver, known as AAC (apprentissage anticipé de la conduite), which can start from the age of 15. However, the candidate is not eligible to sit the practical driving test before the age of 17. Candidates must be registered as a learner driver with the local préfecture. Normally, the driving school takes care of this as part of their overall package. All candidates must have a minimum of 20 hours’ driving lessons with a registered driving school before they are allowed to take the practical test.
In France, driving instructors are only allowed to operate through state-recognised driving schools. The sector is one of the country’s protected professions, effectively making it closed to the free market and competitive pricing. As a result, lessons are almost double the price of those in the UK.
The classic driving school (auto-école) offer starts at 20 hours of driving tuition (the mandatory minimum requirement), plus registration with the préfecture and test application. The average cost of this package – and therefore of obtaining your French driving licence; assuming you pass first time – is around €1,300. The recommended number of hours before taking the test, however, is 40 hours, so most people find their final bill significantly higher.
Most schools also have a joining fee (frais de dossier) of varying prices, basically to cover the administration costs involved in setting up your file and handling registrations. There is no actual fee for taking the tests. However, given the way the system works, by predominantly providing test places through the driving schools, most candidates end up effectively paying via these administration fees. Another separate fee is often requested for any subsequent test applications.
Many candidates find they need more than the 20 minimum hours; for example if the instructor does not think they have reached the necessary standard to pass the test, or indeed if they fail the test. It is common for instructors to refuse to put your name forward if they don’t think you are ready. this is partly to protect their pass rate, but also, they have a fixed quota of test applications per month, and so they will give priority to those most likely to pass; thereby avoiding a backlog of applications for those waiting to retake. (There is a rather complicated formula by which the quota of places is calculated from month to month; all of which, it could be argued, adds to an already admin-heavy system.) It can therefore be several months before you get a first or second chance at the test!
There are those who claim that the driving schools abuse their protected position, charging excessive fees and prolonging tuition hours gratuitously. Recent governments have put reform of the current system on the agenda, but so far progress is slow and the driving schools are strongly resistant to any changes to their favoured status.
In any case, it pays to do your homework before selecting an auto-école. The cheapest per hour may not necessarily mean the best value for money at the end of the process. and never pay the whole fee up front. Most schools offer payment by instalment.
Should more than 20 hours of tuition prove necessary, there is an alternative cheaper way to gain the experience required for those aged 18 years or over – one that is common practice in the UK, i.e. to practise with someone you know. Known as conduite supervisée in France, the person accompanying the learner driver must be an experienced driver, who has held a clean licence for the preceding five years. The person is registered as the learner’s ‘supervisor’ with the driving school, and must spend two hours in the car with the learner and instructor prior to ‘going solo’. The learner is required to complete a minimum of 3,000km with the accompanied driver within a year, or 1,000km within three months for those who are keen to get on with it! There is a consultation with the driving school instructor half way through and at the end to validate the process.
There is also an intensive driving course for those in a hurry. For the permis accéléré, as it’s known, candidates take seven hours of lessons over three days, or three hours per day for two weeks. the average cost is around €2,000.
In order to ensure that the relatively expensive cost of learning to drive in France does not preclude those from more disadvantaged backgrounds from gaining a licence – which in some rural areas is imperative in order to be mobile for work – the government introduced what is known as the ‘€1 per day’ loan scheme (permis à 1€ par jour). Under this arrangement, the state effectively pays the set-up fee and interest payments for a bank loan which is set out specifically to pay for driving lessons for those aged between 16 and 25.
THEORY TEST – EXAMEN THÉORIQUE DU CODE DE LA ROUTE
Most driving schools offer classes to study the code and, perhaps more importantly, the types of questions included in the test. You can also find several online sites that highlight the subjects that the test focuses on and examples of questions. Schools usually also provide a mock test, which replicates exam conditions and equipment, and will often wait until you achieve the standard required to pass before putting you forward for the exam. Following your application, you will be invited to sit the exam at a specialist centre on a set date. You need to take along valid proof of identity.
The test consists of 40 multiple choice questions – many using photographs showing situations that arise while driving and requiring the driver to make a decision about how to react – and you need to get at least 35 of the questions right to pass. The theory exam was simplified in 2010 following an overall review of the driving test, notably weeding out ambiguous questions that were seen by many as unnecessarily misleading. It also added new questions focusing on courtesy for other road users, particularly vulnerable users, and respect for the environment. Candidates receive their result by post or email later the same day. if you pass, you have five years in which to pass the practical test, or a total of five attempts – after five years or five attempts, you will be required to retake the theory test.
PRACTICAL TEST – EXAMEN DU PERMIS DE CONDUITE
Again, candidates will be notified in advance of both the date and place of the exam, and must provide proof of identity. In larger conurbations, it is possible to apply to take the test in a neighbouring community – a further measure that was introduced in 2010 in an attempt to relieve waiting lists. The number of examiners was increased a few years ago as part of measures to reduce the amount of time people had to wait (average waiting time for a test date to come through in 2010 was five months). Other measures included reducing the test time from 35 minutes to 32 minutes, enabling each examiner to carry out a further test per day, and scrapping the previous compulsory month’s wait between initial registration at the préfecture and taking the theory test.
So, the practical test lasts 32 minutes, with 25 minutes allotted to driving, and the rest to the two compulsory safety check questions (one relating to the interior of the car, one to the exterior) and paperwork. The test is based on what the French call ‘un bilan de compétences’, which means it simply evaluates your driving skills to check you are competent to drive on the roads with no danger to yourself or others. (Previously, the ractical test was evaluated according to how many errors were made.)
The test covers various aspects of driving – for example using the controls, road awareness and driving with respect to the environment. To pass, a candidate must have a minimum of 20 points. However, if you make a serious error, deemed potentially dangerous, you will automatically fail. Results are posted within 48 hours via a special service on the Sécurité Routière website.