UK vs. France

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Ah, la belle France! Revolutionary home of liberty, equality and brotherhood! A land of men on bicycles wearing stripey jumpers and berets!

Our closest foreign neighbour (does anyone really regard Ireland as being foreign?), France lies just twenty miles away across the English Channel and shares a lot with us - a history of going to war against each other, for one thing. We also have a lot in common with their road system. Our system of direction signing and primary routes evolved partly from the French system, and Michelin had a hand in developing the UK road numbering scheme in the 1920s.

On the other hand, there's plenty of contrasts. Descriptions of French drivers varies from "good, but fast" to "inconsiderate" and "impatient". France is home to the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, on which no vehicle insurance policy is valid. It was also late to develop its road system - it only had something resembling a motorway network in 1980, but then again construction continues at a brisk pace today.

So what are French roads really like? Do they have a patchy network of roads? Is the place full of terrifying drivers? Are they all badly engineered, as the Arc de Triomphe suggests? The answer to all three is no. Read on to see why.

Click a picture to see a larger version. The first two pictures are courtesy of Bryn Buck - visit his site LMARS for more English and French photos.

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Today France is criss-crossed by a fairly dense network of Autoroutes, most of them newer than their British counterparts. And, as the signs here show, the reason for this is simple. They're tolled! The section in this photo is three lanes, so British drivers will probably feel quite at home, but this is the exception to the rule. Almost all Autoroutes are dual two-lane.

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French signing - even on motorways - tends to use text and big chunky arrows to get its message across. Diagrammatic signs, so familiar to the UK motorist, are only usually used at major interchanges to show a split in the major route. Perhaps this is why French diagrammatic signs are somehow so terribly ugly.

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An unusual sight for drivers from just about any other nation: black and white signs on a motorway - colours usually reserved for minor roads. France uses sign colours appropriate to whatever road you'll find off at the next junction. Its default sign colours are black on white. The result is that actually, about 50% of its motorway signs don't look like motorway signs. This one is lucky enough to have a green 'primary destination' patch on to spruce it up a bit.

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Here's another more plain example. Note also that pretty much all the junctions are not only numbered (with a nifty little "exit" symbol), but they're also named - the interchange name appears in italics below the number. French signposting uses two fonts, a blocky capital alphabet for destinations, and an slimmer italicised alphabet for most other text.

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Here's a nice picture of a grade-separated road. It's the N12, an upgraded National route heading out towards Brest, but it's easily the same standard as an Autoroute - though for some reason this particular section doesn't have full width hard shoulders. Note the broken line marking the edge of the road: the purpose of this is that two of these long lines represent a safe distance from the vehicle in front.

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Such roads as the one above, where they aren't a motorway, can have motorway-like restrictions applied to them. France has a handy sign to denote the start of motorway-like restrictions, which is this blue car sign. Note that even here - right at the entrance to the road - no number is displayed for the N12.

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Despite this professional approach to grade separated roads, France takes no chances and treats them like a novelty. This picture shows a typical entry point - with "no turn" signs from all directions. There's also plenty of arrow signs at the merge point, and afterwards, all traffic is subjected to one way signs, speed limits, more turning restrictions...

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Motorists paying to use the Autoroute can expect to be pampered. At frequent intervals there are places to stop - take this neatly sculpted picnic area on the A7 near Perpignan. Shady seating areas, landscaped car parks, and a smart pavilion building with toilets and vending machines. They're sometimes found on expressways like the N12, but because those roads are state maintained the facilities aren't so good and the riff-raff tend to get in and make a mess.

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What of the other roads? Well, here's a short section of Route Departmentale - a local authority road in English. These seem to be absurdly well funded. This one, the D712, is actually a bypassed section of the N12, but is no better (or emptier) than any other D-road in the area. Even the most minor route sees realigned bends, improved junctions and resurfacing on a scale that some British trunk routes can only dream of.

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Town are signposted by signs like this one - and on exiting, there's the same sign crossed out. The red border signifies the start of a lower speed limit, restrictions on the use of horns and other 'urban' legalities. This one (like some other signs on this page) is from the far west of Brittany, and is therefore bilingual, the top plate in French and the bottom one in Breton.

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Here's some typical French signposting. The vast majority of signs are flag-type, like these, and are placed at the junction itself. Advance signing is rare, but is slowly becoming more common. Flag signs like these are also used to indicate straight ahead destinations - you have to look carefully at exactly which way the signs are angled and the context. This sounds counter-intuitive, and while it arguably isn't the best way to do things, it does work perfectly well. It doesn't take long to get used to the system and its idiosyncracies.

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Here are some more signs. Something very noticeable in France is the attention to their style and appearance. The lettering is unmistakeably Gallic, and every destination gets its own sign panel, with each one an equal width, neatly spaced, and mounted on one of these brushed steel poles.

To the left of this sign is an old-style sign. Until the 1960s Michelin manufactured French road signs in enamel, usually mounted on enormous concrete supports. All were hand-painted and signed by the artist. A close look at this one shows it is dated 1953, and is from the days when the N12 ran along this way.

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Perhaps it's just me, but France's traffic signs always seem to be modelled very closely on the little plastic toy ones I used to play with when I was little. They have exaggerated red borders and less businesslike symbols than their UK counterparts, and they even come with child-safe rounded edges.

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See? Even the chevrons look childish if you render them in this cheery bright blue colour! These look just like the ones Noddy might pass on a sharp bend as he drove into Toytown.

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The French route numbering system is very old - perhaps the oldest in the world. I've read before that the first routes, forming what are now the N-routes radiating from Paris, were set up by Napoleon. Whether that's true or not, they're certainly revered by the placement of these faux-milestones every kilometre of every numbered route. It's actually made out of plastic, but the anachronistic design is used everywhere from back roads to Autoroutes. Strange, then, that the French seem so reluctant to let you use the numbers to navigate at junctions!

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The level of funding that even minor roads seem to receive has already been suggested. This translates in rural areas to an astoundingly comprehensive system of road signing - for a start, virtually any side road meeting a numbered route is ordered to give way. The example on the left is, fairly obviously, just an unsurfaced farm track. This is probably a legacy of the notorious 'priority to the right' system France used to operate where vehicles could simply pull out in front of you on main roads. Thankfully this is very rare now.

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You may think the above represents a lot of money spent on traffic signs, but it's nothing compared to these. They point off rural roads towards nearby farmhouses, either showing the name of the house or the name of the family that lives there. This one shows three names, but as often as not only one is shown. It's a very expensive way to get your post delivered!

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But then that's nothing either. In areas with a lot of farmhouses or a particularly interesting formation of back roads, the whole local area can be converted into map form and displayed on an enormous sign like this! Ouch. If only we had the money to spare over here...

Our only saving graces are that our roads are free, our road signs aren't descendents of a Matchbox playset, and that French drivers apparently consider the British to be superior motorists. Personally - I'm not sure if those three points give us much to laugh about. Vive la France!

Jack H adds:

I agree that France has superior roads to our own, but I have known severe congestion on roads down to the south of France! I think this is mainly due to the sheer weight of traffic on 3 lanes (not 4 lanes like the busiest parts of our road network!) coupled with toll plazas causing everybody to stop!

I remember going home once and seeing a tailback so long that people were actually getting out their cars and sitting on the central reservation - something that I have never seen or imagined here in England!

This reminds me of a TV programme several years ago where it was noted that one year, in the summer rush to the south coast, the electronic message signs on one Autoroute read (in French): "Slow down - the sea is not going to evaporate"!

Martin Vlietstra has a warning:

When driving on the D-roads in France, be prepared for the road number to change suddenly - as far as I could see, the "D" stands for "Department" and within a Department, each D-road is unique, but when it crosses a Departmental boundary it must only be unique within the new Department.

Yes, this is true. Some Departments make an effort to line up their roads across the borders, but most don't. There is also no logical system to numbering Departmental roads.

Luc offers a French perspective:

I am French and I just read your page on French highways, which I found very interesting. It is always nice and fun to see the point of view of other people on your own highway system.

Route pour Automobiles

The motorway-like roadways, indicated by a car on a blue backround, are called route pour automobiles in French, and more commonly voie express. They may be a 4 lanes divided highway or a single carriageway. They are always limited access. The speed limit is 110 km/h on dual carriageways and 90 km/h on single carriageways. The government tends more and more to built them today instead of motorways, and God only knows why (probably because of lower costs, and that people seem to have an allergy to the word "motorway").

French roads classification

Autoroute (A+number) - designate the "autoroutes", or motorway. Usually single or double digit. The 3 digit Autoroutes are usually connecting two Autoroutes or are bypasses or urban motorways.

Routes Nationales (N+number). Those are government maintained highways. Today, they are being transformed into Routes Departementales, especially the ones that are doubled by a motorway. This is again a question of maintainance cost.

Routes Departementales (D+number). Those highways depend on the departements, an administrative division of France (Region->Departement). Their condition depends on how rich the departement is...

Routes Communales/Vicinales (C+number, V+number). Those are the lowest category of roads, depending on the municipalities. Their numbers are not usually posted. They are local roads.

A Little History of Roads

The first roads were built by the Romans, and were called by names (Via Domitia, etc). In the Middle Ages, they often were dirt roads. Under Henri of Navarre and especially Louis XIV the Sun King, a developed network of highways was built, and most were paved. This was done under the impulsions of two ministers: Sully, and Colbert. But the project was not realized to its full extent, and was left unfinished for economical reasons (France was bankrupted by Louis XIV, due to his wars and his excessive spendings on building castles). The work restarted under Napoleon, who numbered them. They were called Routes Imperiales, abbreviated to RI. Then the network of roads slowly evolved until the 1920s, where the first roads like the RN7 (Paris-Nice) were paved with asphalt.

Work on France's first motorway, the Autoroute de l'Ouest (today part of the A13, from Paris to Orgeval) began in the 1920s but was completed in 1948, due to WWII. The Autoroute du Sud was then constructed to Fontainebleau in the early 50s (part of the A6), along with the Autoroute du Nord (A1). By 1975, one could go from Lille to Marseille without living the Autoroute.

Christine has a warning for visitors to France:

Priority to the right at the entrance to a roundabout is tending to be phased out, but priority to the right on ordinary roads still exists everywhere in France, unless marked otherwise. Priority to the right exists on the Boulevard Peripherique in Paris for expample. Drivers should be aware of this and not encouraged to ignore it (although I'd be the first to admit that it's an incredibly dangerous and stupid rule).

I've heard that the UK Automobile Association is saying that priority to the right is almost non-existant, but what do they know? I live here and I can tell you that it's in the Code de la Route, part of the driving test, and still practiced everywhere. Ignore it at your peril! And if anyone can find why this stupid rule was brought in I'd be happy to hear from them.

Stuart uncovers some former N-roads:

The numbering of D-roads can be complicated and they do change over Department boundaries. Over time and as the Autoroute network has grown, a number of the centrally maintained N-roads have been handed over to local control and reclassified as D-roads. In these cases, the end of the old N-road number is maintained with a new prefix. For instance the old N6 and N7 south east of Paris have recently been downgraded, and are generally the D906 and D907, though the number varies from place to place.