Driving through France recently proved to be immensely revealing to Iain P W Robertson, who believes that constant legal pressure and upwards spiralling costs have driven most Gallic drivers to a subdued and characterless place.

lost-their-gall1Despite having been born there, I have enjoyed spirited drives across France, while not actually spending too much time in the countryside, which I do believe to be beautiful. Its cities, notably Paris, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nice and even its Principality of Monaco can never be described as indicative of the quality of its peoples, as they are just like British cities and numerous major conurbations around the world, which are full of different nationalities and cultures and can be decidedly unfriendly as a result. The countryside is demure and quite different.

Yet, French drivers always used to possess a character and style of their own. It ranged from the Gauloises-smoking village resident, complete with leathery skin, driving his rusting 2CV on whichever side of the road he wanted to, returning home after a lunchtime spent imbibing Pastis tinctures and espresso by the bucket load, to the young bloke, possessing a tanned but shiny visage, with the hot Clio, windows dropped to enable anyone within a 500 metres vicinity to hear the full might of Europop banging through a kicking stereo system. That was just on the local roads.

On motorways, a more serious type inhabited the lanes, usually with the left-hand indicator flickering decisively, as his 407/Safrane/A4/3-Series, or any make and model of business vehicle, passed slower vehicles diligently, invariably with an eye to the rear window for anyone approaching faster than he was prepared to travel. That faster person could have been me. Gendarmerie activities on motorways were restricted to within ten miles of airports and ferry terminals. Speeding foreigners were normally caught on non-motorways, where locals believed that it helped to have a good friend at the Mairie, who would ensure that the offending ticket was lost forever, as a fine Cognac was supped together locally.

However, it was Jacques Chirac (President from 1995 to 2007) who changed the outlook for French motorists. It was during his term that the controversial speed cameras were installed on French roads. To begin with, they were the largely familiar ‘Gatsonides’ devices and no excuses were allowed in any vain attempts to question their validity, which made it even more ironic that the Transport Minister was among the first to receive a ticket, on the same day that he unveiled one of the new devices, on a motorway, on the outskirts of Paris.

Subsequent Gallic leaders have simply weighed in with even heftier fines and more swingeing points penalties. The current tally, according to a Cambodian taxi driver (resident in Paris for the past 35 years), is that travelling at 5kph over the posted limit might incur a one point penalty on a Driver’s Licence, while 10kph will account for two points, three for 15kph and so on to a maximum of 12 points, at which level the licence would be removed for a period, starting at a month but progressing into years.

When I last drove across France, in early-2013, I was amazed at how many speed detecting devices had been erected. Bear in mind, I used to ‘race’ across the country’s motorway network with colleagues and other French drivers, travelling from Marseilles to Calais in around eight hours without mishap. Because the French have to pay to drive on their Autoroutes (which can be expensive), they become the fastest means of travel for business people, foreign holidaymakers and journalists, with a smattering of truck-drivers thrown in for good measure. Never busy, except around city centres, they became the safest roads in Europe.

lost-their-gall2Yet, in just one year, the speed detectors have multiplied in presence by upwards of five times and every time a French driver spots one, he jams on the brakes, paying little heed to what might be behind him and the minor incident rate has increased dramatically as a result. However, road fatalities have plummeted to an all-time low in France, which the politicians love for the same reasons they love darned statistics. They equate the figures and boast of the success story.

It took most of France ages to learn how to handle a roundabout (you can still see the effects in some parts of the country, where giving way to traffic from the right remains a priority, even though it is not, on a roundabout anyway!). However, slap a penalty on the driver, as can happen with a speed device, and the Gallic reaction, which is clearly linked to an innate desire not to pay for anything at all, is instant. The brakes are applied.

After many years of delightful, untroubled travel across the French countryside, I find myself now kowtowing to the speed device, many of which are only highlighters, informing passing trade, sorry, traffic of their actual speed and not cameras at all. However, you still need to watch out for tall black pillars, square grey boxes and other snapping devices, all of which will empty your wallet in a trice, unless the roving Gendarmerie get to it first, which might be even worse, especially if they have an end of month target to attain, or a party to go to.

Driving across France, unless you are vehemently anti-speed, is now a bit of a drudge, not least because you can see what it has done to the formerly proud French driving fraternity, which looks downtrodden and hang-dog at the wheels of their cars, buses and trucks and even on the motorbikes with which they used to terrorise absolutely everybody. Yet, there are clear stretches, where you can have a go, just be careful though, because around that next corner might be an electronic French ‘flasher’…