James May

James May

Leap frog

I don’t know if anyone out there has driven through France lately, but if you haven’t, I would keep it that way.

I accept that this will be an unpopular suggestion. I realise that the British middle classes like nothing more than affecting a deep Francophilia and hiring a nice little villa in a ‘wonderful’ cheese region for the summer, and pronouncing Cotes du Rhone in a way that suggests they have a big docker’s oyster to get rid of.

And yes, I know: you can find a lovely little cafe at the roadside serving a really nice cassoulet and it’s so cheap I couldn’t believe it and those motorway tolls really work you know we went all the way from Paris to the Loire Valley and never saw a traffic jam once it’s because their public transport is so good our government should go to France and see how it’s done I love France I think I’d like to buy a little house there one day the property prices are so reasonable compared with here and the way of life I mean it’s so relaxed and the bread – ooooh!

But that’s not the point. You’ll be killed.

I’ve just driven all the way back from the south of France to the ‘Main Land’ in the new BMW 645Ci, and I am now more convinced than ever that we’ll never achieve true European unity. Like all great undertakings that come to nought, the project will founder on something very simple and close to the hearts of the people, and in this case it’s the total, utter and complete inability of the French to drive cars.

I’ve been observing the phenomenon of French driving for many years now, but being reasonable, tolerant, liberal minded and loathe to generalise, and having in any case won the lottery of life, I’ve kept my mounting concerns to myself. But now I’ve had enough, and I’m ready to speak forth on this subject. So read carefully, for I shall write this only once.

They’re crap.

Statistics suggest that the Italians are crap as well, but there is a difference. The Italians manage to drive badly with a certain amount of panache. A senior executive of the Italian motor industry once told me that a red light in Naples is an ‘advisory signal’. Naples is the sort of place where you stop at a green light in case someone is coming the other way.

The Germans? They can be very aggressive, but because they’re German they manage to drive aggressively with a degree of precision. The Spanish are pretty bad drivers as well, but as they’re all too busy sleeping or sitting on a chair on the pavement for no apparent reason, it’s rarely an issue.

“I’m not driving there in my own car. I’m going to buy a horrible little Renault 5 and leave it in France” 

The French are just rubbish. A recent newspaper report suggested that one in 10 French drivers may not have a licence. I’d be amazed if the figure was that low. France is a much larger country than ours and has fewer cars in it, so it’s a bit of a mystery why the one behind you has to be so close. In Britain we invented something called the two-second rule, but the French seem to have mistakenly converted this to metric and arrived at 5.08 centimetres.

You cannot drive anywhere in France without a French driver right up your arse. Whether you’re out on a country road or overtaking a line of slow lorries on a dual carriageway, he’ll be there, a-weaving and a-flashing as if he’s got something more important to get to than a coffee and a calvados.

Because the French are all socialists and generally given to a scaffold-building mentality, they reserve their worst driving for such time as they come across a nice, shiny, new and undamaged motor, particularly if it’s being driven by a foreigner and especially an Englishman. You will cruise gently past a French driver in an old Renault on the autoroute, then the instant you arrive at a winding mountain road he will try to overtake you on that blind off-camber corner where you pulled out to make room for an old peasant on a bicycle.

And they’re always banging on about how it’s more correct to drive on the right. Really? At anything even vaguely approximating to a left-hander, they drive straight down the bloody middle anyway. Useless.

I mean, have you seen the state of the cars in France? I have never seen one without a big dent in it, even obviously new ones. I’m absolutely convinced that they must go over them with a hammer while they’re still in the showroom, just to get it over with. French visitors to Britain must be amazed at how smooth and evenly rounded a typical Peugeot is. They’ve never seen one like that before.

My mate Hamster contends that the core of a typical French car is reasonably solid, but that all the extraneous fittings – bumpers, wheel trims, etc – will fall off. This makes sense, since all those bits are regarded as consumables by the French and are only really put there for the export market. Indicators are for the export market as well.

Let’s take parallel parking. You or I would find a space a few feet longer than the car and then reverse into it with due care and attention. The French, meanwhile, drive around all day in search of that elusive spot that’s slightly shorter than the car. They lunge in nose first and shunt to and fro until all the lights are broken and one wheel is on the pavement, then step out and shrug their shoulders as if the whole thing was beyond their control. Which it was, in fact.

Let’s face it – they just can’t do it. I dare say they do some nice croque monsieur on the motorway, but until they can sort out the driving, I shall continue to regard France as somewhere I have to drive through in order to get to Italy, And from now on, I’m not driving through it in my own car. Instead of buying a nice little property on the south coast, I’m going to buy a horrible little Renault 5 and leave it in France for such time as I have to go there.

You might wonder where I’m going to keep it, but don’t worry. I’ve been to France often enough to know that I can just park it on a roundabout somewhere.


James May, Column

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