Published on August 19th, 2016 | by Molly Montgomery1
Driving: Culture Differences in France and in the United States
In September 2014, had just stepped off the airplane in France for a year-long stay in the Alsace region, where I would be teaching English at a high school. I recuperated my luggage when I was greeted by a teacher from the school where I would be working. He helped me pile by enormous suitcases into the back of his tiny sedan and off we went, zipping away through the scenic highways of rural France. That ride was my wake-up call that I had indeed entered a different country from my own. Seeing the blue autoroute signs pass by and noticing the speed limits were displayed in kilometers, I knew I had entered France.
There’s just something about French roads – aside from the incredible views of the French countryside – that sets them apart. It stems from France’s unique car culture, which differs from the car culture in the United States. French and Americans may drive on the same side of the road, but driving in either country is a distinct experience.
First of all, there are some obvious differences. France uses the metric system, while the United States still uses Imperial units. Distance is counted in kilometers in France, not miles, and gas is sold in liters, not gallons.
When Americans are driving in France, one of the first things they notice is the frequency of roundabouts or traffic circles. Americans rarely encounter roundabouts in the U.S., whereas France has 30,000 of them – more roundabouts than any other country in world.
The cars tend to be smaller in France than in the U.S. due to higher car prices and gas prices. There are far more cars with manual transmission in France than there are in the United States, where it is rare to see a “stick shift” in a car these days. Cars with automatic transmission are rare in France because they are more expensive, and everyone is still accustomed to driving stick shift.
You will see far more European cars in France than in the U.S., which is no surprise. The French are proud of their car brands, including Peugeot, Citroen, and Renault, which are rarely found in the U.S. France has a larger share of German and Italian cars too. There are some Asian and American cars too in France too, but they are nowhere near as popular as they are in the United States.
It is extremely difficult to spot a large SUV in France. The French admire sports cars just as much as Americans do, but they have no interest in off-roading vehicles. In France, there is not as much rugged terrain to conquer. Even the remote rural roads are usually well-paved. Americans still embrace the notion of the frontier as part of their car culture, a motif which occurs often in American car commercials (usually it’s something like this: a family goes camping and drives their car right off the road through the mud and dirt and into the forest, becoming one with nature in their SUV). France does not have the same cultural attachment to exploring the wilderness.
However, some of the stereotypes about American and French drivers are not necessarily true. French tend to assume all Americans own cars. While it is true that car ownership is much more common in the United States than in France— there are 809 cars per 1000 people in the USA versus only 578 per 1000 people in France— many Americans, especially those who live in big cities get by with no car at all, prefer to take public transportation. The same split between rural residents and city dwellers holds true in France.
While many Parisians opt to use public transportation instead of driving, the French who live outside big cities have no other option but to drive. The rail system in France is also available, but in rural areas, each town might have just one train station, and rail can be an expensive option for long trips.
Both Americans and French are fond of road trips. The main difference is the distance involved. In the time it takes to traverse the entire Hexagone by car, many Americans, especially those living in the western United States, could drive without even leaving their home state. For example, a trip from Paris to Marseille (774 km or 480 mi), is roughly equal to a trip between San Francisco, California and San Diego, California (806 km or 510 mi). In France, all highways spiral out from the center of French culture — Paris. In the U.S., there are interstate highways that connect far-flung corners of the nation, but there is no central hub.
While French road trips are known for their beautiful scenery and pleasant views of antiquated villages and ancient churches, if you stick to the main highways you’re just as likely to grow bored of watching the asphalt as you are in the United States. To see the true France, you have to leave the autoroute and take the backroads. That’s how I explored the rural region of France where I lived for a year. I was lucky to have friends willing to drive me around just so I could drink in the beauty of the countryside. I would have driven myself – except for I can’t drive a manual, like the stereotypical American that I am.
This article was translated in French by Sandrine Sweeney and proofread in English by Aubrey Wadman Goetsch.