Driving in France

After All: Herons - not drones - above the motorways

Image credit: Christine Bohling

While new ‘smart’ motorways are being scrapped in the UK, Vitali looks at the engineering and other peculiarities of French ‘autoroutes’ as he begins a coast-to-coast drive through the country.

“The road is life” – Jack Kerouac.

The devil is not as black as he is painted. Particularly if the ‘devil’ is French and is better known as ‘le diable’.

We came close to cancelling this trip only days before it was due to start. France was being reportedly paralysed by protests against President Macron’s pension reform. According to some reports, the protests would often turn violent, with cars, and occasionally even campervans, overturned and set on fire.

That last bit was a particular put off for us (my wife, myself and our dog Tashi), for that was exactly how we were planning to travel across the whole of France – in a converted ‘grey import’ Toyota Alphard, nicknamed Alphie, familiar to E&T readers from my previous After All columns. The aim of the journey was a brief reunion with my relatives from Kyiv (including a 90-year-old auntie), who had fled war-torn Ukraine and found refuge in Marseille.

On top of the protests, there were rumours of severe petrol shortages and long queues at the ‘pompes a essence’ (petrol pumps).
After a good deal of hesitation, we resorted to voting and, by simple democratic majority, with two in favour and Tashi (busy crunching through his kibble) abstaining, the decision was taken to go ahead. It turned out to be one of our best resolutions ever, for we ended up having a hassle-free ride from the Channel (or La Manche, as the French call it) to the Mediterranean and back, using mostly the so-called ‘routes nationales’, or ‘autoroutes’, i.e. French national motorways, which I had come to regard as an engineering miracle of sorts. And I was not alone. On our return to the UK, I came across an online forum ‘French Roads – Engineering Peculiarities’ (FREP), which, albeit inactive for several years, remained a fascinating read.

After a night in Folkestone’s comfy Holiday Inn (which, due to the sheer number of guests with dogs, could have been renamed ‘Howliday Inn’), and a quick Shuttle crossing, we rolled out onto the near-empty – or so it seemed after the previous day’s three-hour queuing on M25 – A16 motorway near Calais.

I instinctively kept my eyes open for ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests), anti-tax protesters wearing the fluorescent yellow high-vis jackets, with whom I had a couple of not-too-pleasant encounters during previous trips to France.

Driving in France

Image credit: Christine Bohling

After a while, I concluded that the only ‘gilets jaunes’ around were my wife and myself: in accordance with the driving in France rules, we were carrying two bright-yellow jackets on the back of our seats (we couldn’t find one that would fit Tashi). Other items on the must-carry list included a spare set of bulbs and fuses, a red warning triangle, and a set of breathalyser tubes. On top of those, we were smart enough to apply for and to display on the windscreen the latest checklist addition – a Crit’Air pollution sticker indicating the vehicle’s level of emissions. Alphie’s orange sticker featured a large ‘3’ on it, whatever that could mean.

We also did not forget the headlamp beam deflectors, which I stuck to Alphie’s uncomplaining headlights minutes before we boarded the Shuttle (for one is not allowed to use them in the UK). They stop the beam shining directly into oncoming right-hand traffic, of which there was very little as we were whooshing happily across the French bit of the North European Plain.

I was gradually coming to grips with one of the main rules of French driving protocol: ‘priorité à droite’, or giving way to the vehicles coming from the right at all junctions, including roundabouts, of which, incidentally, France has the highest number in the world – over 60,000. This rule can be confusing because it applies in some places but not in others, designated by a rather sinister-looking sign with a black cross in a white triangle and a red outline meaning that traffic from the left doesn’t have to stop! To quote the FREP forum, “...on motorways, the French stick to the right like glue...” Well, not always, as it appears.

True, French motorways may not be ‘smart’ from a UK point of view: they have adverse cambers and no hard shoulder. But what I liked about those ‘dumb’ motorways, however, was the sheer length – at times, up to half a mile – of their slip roads, which made merging nice and easy.

As we drove on, both Alphie and I couldn’t help noticing that the motorway surface felt much smoother and produced less tyre noise than in the UK. I later learned from FREP that it was due to the fact that the surface in France was built with concrete, not asphalt, and in general had “higher civil-engineering specs”.

Specs aside, when it started pouring with rain, the raindrops – instead of forming into puddles – were bouncing off the motorway, like tiny mercury balls, leaving the surface dry, but flying shrapnel-like into my windscreen when overtaking or staying behind a truck.

When the rain and the resulting ‘shrapnel’ showers got too heavy, we would exit into one of the ubiquitous ‘aire de service’ stops. As a popular French saying, which I have just invented, goes, on French motorways you are never more than three miles from an ‘aire’. They were spotlessly clean, with trees and Tashi’s favourite grassy lawns, picnic tables (albeit we preferred having picnics inside Alphie) and sterile toilets, in which calming stereo music was played. It was the all-permeating cleanliness that struck me most after the casually littered motorways and road services in the UK. And the ‘engineering’ behind that was simple: the abundance of good old bins! In France, it seemed, rather than campaigning for cleanliness, as we do in the UK, they simply sweep the ground and do not chuck rubbish out of the car windows.

That was why we were not particularly surprised to spot a graceful and dignified heron, overflying the A16 motorway unhurriedly near Amiens.

Here I must confess with embarrassment that, unable to stop thinking of the ongoing war in my native Ukraine and of the forthcoming reunion with my Kyiv relatives, turned refugees, in Marseille, I initially took the bird for a military drone.

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