French Manual of Defensive Driving

By sheer luck I have uncovered this document, solely designed for internal consumption.

Reliable evidence suggests that most French drivers, especially in the country’s backwater (France profonde), follow the Manual’s recommendations religiously.

This puts foreigners unfamiliar with the document at a disadvantage, which explains why visitors to France often complain about local drivers. This is akin to a Greco-Roman wrestler entering a judo competition and then complaining about being tripped.

So here are a few selected excerpts from the Manual I’ve translated for the benefit of those who have little experience driving on French roads.

1) Before you get on the road, get in the right frame of mind, which is hostile.

Drive defensively, says the old wisdom and we agree wholeheartedly. But, as l’Empereur taught, the best defence is offence.

Therefore, every time you get behind the wheel you must remind yourself that public roads are battlefields or, at best, sporting arenas. All other drivers are your enemies or, at best, adversaries.

In any battle or sporting contest, there are winners and losers. A defeated soldier may lose his face literally, while an also-ran in an athletic competition may only do so figuratively. Yet both death and humiliation are to be avoided with equal zeal.

2) First, make sure your car is roadworthy. There are only a few relevant criteria you must apply:

Your vehicle must be at least 20 years old, ideally much older.

It’s roadworthy if it can get you from A to B. The number of parts it sheds along the way, the pitch of the maddening noises it produces and the amount of black smoke it belches out are irrelevant.

3) Think of your turn signals as decoys designed to confuse the enemy (other drivers).

If you are followed by another car through several turns, first indicate the proper one, then the wrong one, then none at all.

If you cause an accident as a result, it’ll be the other chap’s fault (when pointing this out to him, make sure you gesticulate wildly, call him espèce de merde and insist that your turn was properly indicated). Even if no accident ensues, the other driver will go crazy while you’re whistling a merry tune. You win in either case.

4) The proper technique for making a turn off the main road (single carriageway, speed limit 90 km/hour) into a side street is as follows:

Slow down to 10 km/hour or ideally come to a full stop. Do not turn your wheel until you’re certain that the driver behind you is properly primed: throwing his arms up, tooting his horn, flashing his lights or sticking his head out of an open window to scream obscenities. Complete the turn only when the enemy is on the verge of cardiac arrest.

5) Never wonder who has right of way. You do.

6) Hold your ground when driving on a road barely wide enough for two cars to get by. Never shift even a smidgen to the right: it’s better to lose your side mirror than your masculinity.

7) When you and another car stop at an intersection, ignore the other driver’s gesture inviting you to go first. Shake your head and wait for him to move. Then move at the same time, making him hit the brakes. When he stops, you stop too. Repeat as many times as it takes to make your point, even if you aren’t sure what it might be.

8) Never, we repeat never, let anyone into your lane if you can help it. He can sit there waiting, while you enjoy the sight of his face turning purple.

9) Driving on motorways (speed limit 130 km/hour) requires a unique set of skills:

Remember that you’re entitled to use any lane you desire, or two of them at the same time. Driving, or, better still, zigzagging, between the lanes has an added advantage: it keeps other drivers guessing, making them think twice before overtaking you.

In general, make it hard for your adversaries to discern any recognisable pattern in your road behaviour.

For example, if you overtake another driver at 50 km over the limit, slow down to way below the limit soon thereafter, leaving him befuddled as he overtakes you at his steady speed. Then repeat.

When you yourself overtake, make sure you stay parallel with the vehicle on your right as long as possible, even – especially! – if it’s a lorry moving at 60 km/hour. This will prevent other drivers in the fast lane from overtaking you, while raising their systolic blood pressure to apoplectic levels.

Don’t ever indicate lane changes or motorway exits – catch les sales cons by surprise.

In general, the enemy’s fear is your best weapon – make sure all other drivers are scared of you.

10) If another driver wishes to overtake you on a single carriageway, follow these simple rules:

Drive extremely slowly on those sections of the road where overtaking isn’t allowed, or where there’s oncoming traffic, and extremely fast where he could pass you. Don’t make it easy for the enemy to beat you.

Another useful technique is to slow down, encouraging him to overtake. When he does so, wait until he’s level with you, then accelerate to match your speed to his.

This will force him to stay on the wrong side of the road much longer than is good for his psychic and cardiac health. Ideally this manoeuvre should be executed when a lorry is coming towards the other driver.

11) Priorité a droite (giving way to traffic on your right) is a measure introduced by the French government as a means of controlling inordinate population growth.

To make it even more effective, the government then specified numerous situations where the rule doesn’t apply, confusing even those who have been driving for years.

This creates troubled waters in which you can fish. Approaching a T-junction with a major road, you can be sure that the drivers on it don’t have a clue whether or not Priorité a droite applies, even if there is a Stop sign on your side street.

You can exploit their uncertainty by approaching the junction at 80 km/hour or so, then hitting the brakes at the last moment. For better effect, toot your horn at the same time, as if inadvertently.

Even if the enemy has the presence of mind not to swerve left into the path of oncoming traffic, it’ll take him a while to regain his composure.

So, if you’re planning a driving holiday in France, you now know what to expect. Bonne chance!




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