Before I say nasty things about the French on the road, I must say nice things about their off-road behaviour. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, it compares favourably to the British equivalent.
It would of course be spurious to compare the mores of central London, where I spend half the year, to those of rural Burgundy where I spend the other half. People in large cities everywhere take shortcuts through the maze of daily civilities one takes for granted in the country. A Yorkshire girl I know, who moved to London some 15 years ago, says it took her a year to stop saying hello to strangers — and people who move from Tula to Moscow or from Charleston to New York can tell you similar stories galore.
But, comparing like with like, a friend of mine, a Cambridgeshire man born and bred, retired some three years ago to a village near Cambridge, where he had spent his working life. So far he still hasn’t exchanged two words with any of his neighbours, and he is a gregarious chap. The locals clearly perceive him as an undesirable foreigner, which is understandable, considering that he grew up at least three miles away. Another friend has had a house in Norfolk for 30 years, and he claims it took the locals 10 years to start reciprocating his greetings, and another 10 to agree to a taciturn dialogue of some 30 seconds.
Well, my experience in France is different — and we really are foreigners there. When we moved into our house 11 years ago, many neighbours immediately rang our doorbell, introduced themselves and told us to knock on their door, day or night, if we needed anything — and they were as good as their word. In the first couple of months in France I made more friends than I did in 15 years in America, and I haven’t changed all that much.
In short, I think that the traditional British stereotypes of the French as rude, haughty and xenophobic are way off the mark even in Paris, let alone rural France. Comparatively speaking, the French are affable, forthcoming and well-mannered. But all that changes the moment one hits the road.
The British these days are much less civil than the French when they are on foot — and much more so behind the wheel of a car. In broad strokes, the French would rather stay French than alive.
When one is stuck on a single carriageway, inhaling the black smoke coming out of a 40-year-old Peugeot in front, the natural urge is to overtake, especially if the other car is proceeding at 20 miles below the speed limit. The gap in the incoming lane being large enough, one pulls out and accelerates. That very instant, the Peugeot driver accelerates as well, perhaps to 10 miles over the limit. That leaves two options: either to crank it up to 100 mph in a 55 mph zone, risking a head-on collision, or hitting the brakes and swerving back behind the smoke-belcher. In the latter case, he’d slow down again.
Enlightened self-interest, never mind good manners, are nowhere in evidence. It’s clear that, given the choice between hitting an oncoming vehicle and sideswiping the car on one’s right, any sensible driver would choose the second option. So the French chap I described — and, trust me, he is typical — is endangering his own life. Why? You tell me.
Turning without indicating, coming out of a side street onto the main road without looking, driving heaps that are clearly not roadworthy, the same car unpredictably and unjustifiably going too slow one minute and too fast the next, people prepared to die defending their right of way while impinging on yours — all these are the norm, not exceptions.
And speaking of roadworthiness, in Britain we have the first MOT when the car is three years old, and one every year thereafter. In France, it’s four and two, meaning that, while a six-year-old car in Britain would have had at least three MOTs, a similar car in France could have had just one. The AA has shown, figures in hand, that this is a major factor in road accidents, and yet our federastic government is soon to adopt the French system. We can’t be different from Europeans even in areas where we are better.
And the lorries — don’t get me going on those. Everyone who drives on French motorways knows that their lorry drivers do veritable impersonations of homicidal maniacs, swerving in and out of the slow lane in a haphazard fashion. A recent report in the Figaro explained why, or at least partly why.
Long-distance driving being a tedious business, French lorry drivers have found creative ways of relieving boredom. They keep their offside wheels on the roadside cats’ eyes, counting on the resultant noise to obviate the need to focus on the road. Thus liberated, they watch films on portable TV sets or cook their lunch on battery-powered hotplates in the other seat. It’s not only with nuclear bombs and unmanned drones that modern technology kills.
As a result of all that, the death rate on French roads is more than twice ours — this considering that they have 10 times the number of road miles per car, 2.5 times the territory, and much better road surfaces and markings. Where we are, one can drive for half an hour without encountering a single car going either way — and yet people get killed all the time. Last summer, we saw an abandoned car perched on top of a 6-foot hedge 10 feet away from an absolutely straight and usually empty road. How did it get there? C’est un mystère.
The British are, in my experience, by far the most skillful and courteous drivers in the world. And the French? Well, I much prefer Italian drivers. They may be deranged, but at least their madness is predictable.