Andy Meets The Gendarmes

Anyone used to driving throughout Europe on UK plates smugly thinking you’re immune and un-catchable would do well to think again if visiting France this year.

I had a trip to Nice planned last spring in a Mercedes CL55AMG and had already heard mutterings of French police being much more rigid and vigilant these days, as well as rumours of reciprocal license endorsement deals between our respective police forces.

Little did I know we were about to be enlightened….

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Travelling south of Paris on the Peage, gin clear skies, lovely sunny afternoon, Mercedes purring away with virtually nothing else on the road. What little traffic there was politely moving aside, the road surface immaculate and inviting, just some of the many things that makes driving on French roads such a pleasure.

Along for the ride and to share the driving, my mate Andy took a turn at the wheel. Him being a racing driver by profession, our progress was brisk, until slowing for what appeared to be congestion.

The ‘congestion’ was being caused by a Gendarme on a motorcycle gently slowing people down and gesturing us and three other cars to follow into the services. Bugger.

Captured - This way to the cash point

“How much cash you got on you, chap?”

“Just a couple of Euros,” replies Andy. Looks like this one’s down to me then. We climb out of the CL55 AMG, me grabbing my Canon 1DS to record the moment…..

The bike Gendarme hops off and goes into a huddle with his colleagues before turning and rattling off

“193, 175, 155,167”, pointing to each car in turn. His gun carrying colleagues disperse to the respective drivers…..

“Do you know the speed limit in France, M’seur?” asks Jean Claude.

Andy, now desperately trying to wing it, “Pardon M’seur?” with his best Gallic shrug.

“130 kilometers per hour. You were doing 193. You license and car papers?” He continues politely.

Turning to me, “Do you have a license?” Which I believe proved to be the killer question. Jean Claude glanced at it and handed it back before turning back to Andy,

“The penalty is seven five zero Euros”.

Andy blinked. “Did he say seventy five Euros?”

Jean Claude politely shakes his head “Seven hundred and fifty.”

Lots of very authentic Gallic shrugs from myself and Andy, acutely aware that we don’t have that kind of cash on us. Jean Claude gestures to his colleague to explain in more fluent English.

Jean Claude's 750 Euro handshake....

“You need to go into this town and visit the bank with your card. You will get your license and papers when you return”

I was well aware of the fact that France has on-the-spot speeding fines, but was unprepared for the amount, or what happened when we returned.

Amidst much form filling in and Andy handing over a roll of Euros big enough to choke a donkey, it becomes clear that Andy is not actually going to get his licence back. Nor is he driving any further.

Jean-Claude-Gen-Damme, as we’ve named him by this time, explains to Andy that his license will be returned to him later and that he cannot drive in France any more, gesturing like a baseball umpire, palms down. Instant ban.

While standing around waiting and filling out forms, a German registered Porsche 993 Turbo 4 pulls in. We overhear it’s owner being fined 97 Euro.

German registered Porsche 993 Turbo also captured

Hang on a tick, what gives, Jean Claude? We have visions of Andy getting his license returned by post, stapled to a picture of Jean Claude and his mates wearing plastic breasts and having a jolly good time with our Euros.

A smile of understanding from the Gendarmes produces a thick red book full of tables and rules “He was at 176, you were 193. More than 50 kilometres over the limit, big fine, instant ban for six months”

“In France or UK?” Andy’s got his cool-but-worried racing driver look on, normally only used when summoned before the stewards when racing.

“In France, six months. In UK……” Jean Claude’s palms-upward Gallic shrug is vastly superior to ours.

Their vagueness about what was to become of Andy’s until-now clean license was particularly un-nerving, as with hindsight it was no doubt designed to be.

Chastened, pockets lightened and Andy sans-license, we roll gently out of the services.

This episode answers several questions and raises others.

The French Gendarmes, always renowned for their on the spot fines, have clearly been spending the winter devising other methods of frightening non-domestic drivers.

Whilst we were stopped, cars of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, including domestic French motorists were being stopped en-masse. It was like watching one of those nature documentaries of grizzly bears catching salmon in the shallows.

Secondly, if you are going to drive quickly in France, be aware that there is a point at 50 kph over the limit that triggers an instant ban in France and a cash-card-melting fine. No doubt there will be many who say “serves you right” and, indeed, that is so. Andy’s philosophy is one of “live by the sword, die by the sword and don’t cry when you get caught”, so he’s not looking for sympathy.

Nor will you get any, as Jean Claude politely relieves you of another donkey-choker….193 kph is around 120 mph.

Fast, but far from dangerous in those conditions and for someone with that level of experience behind the wheel.

Thirdly. French roads are wonderful to drive on, rarely congested on the toll routes and the surface is like a mermaid beckoning to a driver used to cameras, white vans and the congested M25. A driver like Andy just has to taste the forbidden fruit.

Finally, what would have happened if Andy had been alone, or I had been unable to produce a license? Apparently French nationals would have been arrested.

This week, Andy’s license was returned from France with a letter commuting his ban to three months in France. As someone who makes his living from his license, the nagging doubt over the outcome was un-nerving. Next time, he’s taking a 2CV complete with chickens on the roof and faded blue paintwork.

Financial pain – Andy McKenna

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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  • Used to be safe to do 200 kph plus, late at night when Les Flicques where all tucked up in bed with the missus, or someone else’s missus (this is France after all!).
    But that’s all changed now.
    Today it’s 130 max day or night and not worth the risk doing more.
    It used to be all so practical doing the minimum 180 kph, eating up the road, and you’d be checked in to the hotel, breakfasted, kitted up and on the slopes first thing in the morning.
    Could be dangerous though. Once hit a Roe Buck at 2 in the morning on the road to Chamonix. And very tasty it was too! But the front of the Porsche did not look too clever. Eyeballs etc all over the place.
    My Jersey pals drive their very serious motors, very sedately through France, and then hammer away down the German motorways, but even on those, there are limits and selected times of the day when you can let rip.
    How am I going to have any fun with my McLaren F1 (if I can find one) and when I eventually make enough folding to buy one?
    Suggestion: Take up fly-fishing for Salmon. It’s huge fun, very satisfying if you catch one, wild salmon is oh so tasty, and it won’t choke the donkey. In fact you don’t even need a donkey!

  • just had my new ferrari californian confiscated for doing 260 kph.

    back to French court in Nov. but apparently not necessarily to collect my car???

  • Sorry to rake an old post, but this happened to me last night on the A16. 194km/h in a 130km/h stretch in my trusty Mondeo, which right now, sits at a Peage for the A29.

    Because it was Saturday night, and no banks were open, we couldn’t pay the fine, and even if we could, my passenger had no driving licence. We managed to get 600€ on various credit and debit cards.

    When we couldn’t pay, the Gendarme shrugged in a Gallic fashion and stated “zis is not my prrrroblem, your car rest ‘ere”.

    Fortunately, I wasn’t too far from my French apartment (I didn’t let on to the Gendarme I had a French address) wisely according to my landlord, who rescued me from the Peage, 40 miles away.

    The landlord and his wife are going to collect my car and bring it to my apartment, and someone is going to fly in and collect it. Being a company car, I have no documents, however, they gave me no additional penalty, nor for the GB plate being missing (thank you feral French yoofs).

    Should have the car back this week, after I’ve bankrupted myself to pay the fine. Leaves me with a transport problem to my French office, which is ten miles from the middle of nowhere, and my apartment is in the middle of nowhere. Bicycle time, methinks.

    It was good to read the post, and that I’m probably looking at a reasonably short French ban.

  • I know someone who got an instant French driving ban (6 months) which isn’t so bad for him as it was a one off trip. The fine though is pretty eye watering and ruined his holiday and caused him major problems at the time.

  • Went on weekend trip with friends, me in my car and them in their car, from one side of France to the other. Got caught doing 150kph in a 130 area, 45euro and on my way. Great says I, this is easy. No it was not.

    On the way back, those long empty smooth roads just begged me to open the old girl up. So I did. Hidden Military Police radar me at 194kph, oh well, another 45 euro and on my way. No afraid not, you would have thought I just shot someone the way he spoke to me. He took my licence and said, “for you driving in France is over”, not a good start to a speeding ticket. He said, “cost for you is 750euro”. Bugger, no licence and about £730 fine.

    Me and my friend were driven by the boys in blue (driven quiet madly actually) to a local bank and we used 4 credit cards to get the 750 euro out. He drove back like mad to the police station, and there he spent the next 1 hour, yes, 1 hour, telling me what a terrible person I was, and how us English come over and race our cars. Actually reading this and other websites it seems like we do. He said, “I ban you from driving for 1 month or maybe 2, I think!”, Didn’t quite know what that meant, looks like a 6 month ban lowered to 3, I guess.

    He then went on to say, “if you play and drive again and we catch you”, fine is 1500 euro and we take car. Serious then!

    The facts remain, I knew what I was doing, I didn’t know that 50kph over the limit meant a ban, but I do now. If I knew what I was doing, then I should just accept the fine and make sure I don’t go 50kph over the limit again. I know what I just wrote, I should have said, “I won’t speed again”, but their roads are soooooo nice. 45euro seems to be the price to pay for having a little freedom.

    Won’t be going to France this summer though.

    Piece of advice, take plenty of euro cash and a spare driver, if you really want to test your latest AMG Merc etc. Or a couple of hundred euro if you just want to drive with a little gusto…………

  • Sorry to hear your tale, Julie. As you can see, this post is very popular at this time of year. We’ve just got to accept that those are the rules. I don’t think it’s Brits in particular that speed in France, the French do a good job themselves!
    I’d suggest finding out about some of the many great French race tracks and doing a track day or two there instead.

  • I’m told Easter weekend is the busiest of the year for the Gendarms, as I too found out when my car was surrounded by their motorbikes on a dual carriageway. I was clocked doing 174 when the limit was 110 and got marched down to the cashpoint for €500. I’ve no idea how or when I get my license back but I have what looks like a court summons for the end of June. Fortunately, they couldnt impound my car as the yard was shut for Easter, but it’s still pretty inconvenient not to be able to drive.

    The police were pretty decent about it. They said you get a 5% discount on speed for the accuracy of the machines, and that I should stay below 167 to avoid it being a major infraction.

  • Not worth it!
    I was in Argentan 2010 traveling back from Le Mans in a 911 Turbo pushing 230k’s and arrested they threw the book at me! Banned on the spot,£750 euro instant fine, Court case in Argentan with another £750 euro fine and £1000 euro legal costs! Total £2500 euros
    I know there is a few poor French farmers but this would by a lot of Goat’s
    Also they wanted to compound the car except it was not in my name buy luck!

  • I got done in June 2011 on the way to le Mans, paid the Euro 750 fine and my mate drove, today 3months later received a letter demanding a payment of euro 750! Luckily I have receipt.

  • Wow.. Didn’t realise the risk. I was caught today driving from Calais to Andorre. I was doing 153 kmph. On the spot fine of 45 euros. At times I was doing plus 140 + on my own. I would have been F**ked if I got caught. me thinks on the way home I’ll take it easy. Definnitely stay below that magical 50kmph zone which I cannot afford haha.

  • Also carry your original documents, V5, MOT and insurance.
    I got pulled in Germany late one night on the A2. Boxed in by 2 unmarked cars and pulled over, well dodgy! I didn’t have the V5, just the new keepers supplement. Not recognised apparently.
    They pull all UK cars ‘cos our eatern european friends often don’t have correct documents. He wanted to impound my vehicle until he got the info from UK, at least 5 days. My wife was preggers and fit to drop at the time so I gave him the full sob story.
    Finally we came to an agreement. They cut the number plates off my car and the next morning I had to tab 15k to the nearest town to register the car as German, get temporary plates and insurance and then tab back again before I could get on my way.

  • I have just returned from France having suffered an almost exact copy of this. I was stopped and the Gendarmes who spoke virtually no English asked for my license and the car papers when I produced the license the Gendarme says “This in France is finished” I look bewildered and am told to get into the car and follow the Gendarme. We go to a police station where they put on a whiteboard the speed I was driving and the speed limit a difference of 60 kph I was doing 190. They again say license is finished in France. I try to explain I have no other driver in the car and they say not our problem. They then say if I pay fine I can have license back the fine being 750 Euros. When I pay the fine I get a receipt and I ask for my license and they tell me no finished in France for two then they consult and say no three months. I am on route to Italy and I ask them how I am to get out of France and again they say no problem. The one then claims to have a friend who will drive my car to Italy for 650 Euros and after many phone calls I decide I have no choice. The guy turns up and after taking 650 Euros laughing and joking with the Gendarmes gets into my car and drives at an average speed of 150 kph to Italy through the Mont Blanc Tunnel. When we emerge from the tunnel in Italy police stop the car and arrest the driver as he was caught by cameras speeding in the tunnel. He explains the situation and the police let me go. I continued to Italy and then returned to the UK via Switzerland Germany Luxembourg Belgium and then under cover of darkness France to Calais luckily with no intervention from the Gendarmes. This happened on the 11th of August and so far I have heard nothing from France nor have I seen my license returned

    • I just got caught a couple of weeks ago in exactly the same as Steven Lord but driving with a group of motorcyclists, speed 180kph but down-graded to 170kph, 750 euro fine & instant ban. Luckily we were close to our hotel near Metz so was able to cadge a lift on the back of a mate’s bike while another mate rode my bike back there. Came back via Luxembourg & Belgium. However Boys & Girls, that’s not the most painful part, although the 750 euro was pretty eye-watering; I’ve been banned in France for 4 moths (inconvenient but not unsurmountable), they returned my license to the ‘Ambassador of GB’ in Paris for some bizarre reason (despite writing a letter to my home address to tell me that), who told me that when they receive UK licenses they return them to DVLA. Unfortunately the consulate in Paris are as bloody-minded as their French counterparts & won’t tell me what they have done with it, despite me knowing it was received there & DVLA don’t have it, so I was forced to pay £20 for a replacement. Then the killer; apparently UK license holders fall under the same rule as the French if you are banned for more than 1 month, namely you have to attend a clinic to verify you are a fit person to drive & until then you do that the suspension is not closed off, which I presume leaves you liable to arrest or another fine if for some reason the Flics run your driver details through their computer! No-one wants to be able to help or advise on this matter, certainly not the consulate in Paris & I’m hoping to be able to visit a French doctor close to my home in London & obtain the certificate. Luckily my French is passable, otherwise it would cause a bigger problem than it has already.
      Now I know why all French people stick to the speed limit!

  • Apparently its not funny to convert kph to mph then make that your personal speed limit.
    I was only doing 125mph (200kph) on a road with a 70mph (110kph) limit!
    Its also not funny to say to 1 of the 3 cops on chase bikes “I didn’t think my car could go so fast, why didn’t you overtake me?”
    (I now find out the BMW chase bikes are only good for about 130mph, cheers Steve.)
    They gave me a recipt for 200 quid, I gave them my old green paper licence.
    18 yrs ago I got away with the same stunt, speaking only English to “le flick”.
    At that time English had just become compulsory subject in schools.
    18 yrs on you will be hard pushed to find any “flick” that doesn’t speak it.
    Checked with a French mate about contesting it, he said it would just be cash down the drain, they always side with cops.
    2 days after got letter, banned 3 months. Brassed of with walking so paid a mate to drive my car to ferry due to threat
    of 4 yrs in prison & 4000 euro fine if caught driving while banned.
    Can only think different areas have different pricing structures? Brittany 22.

  • Seems fair enough to me. The statement “193 kph is around 120 mph. Fast, but far from dangerous in those conditions and for someone with that level of experience behind the wheel.” isn’t really true on public roads – where other (less experienced) drivers can be unpredictable.