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La France

Licence to…Drive

Reader, Jun 17

Written by Elizabeth Stewart, a Languedoc Living reader.

In the on-going quest to be almost French, the next best document after a carte sejour (temporary residency card) is the permis de conduire (driver’s licence). It is sought after but not easily obtained by Americans. Generally, one takes the written and driving tests in French to qualify for a licence. In some states, like Virginia, there is reciprocity so one can exchange the U.S. licence for a French one within a year after receiving the carte sejour.

It is this privilege that prompted an American friend of mine who has resided in the L'Herault for 13 years to urge me to go for that reciprocity. “I’m from New York City so there is no reciprocity,” she said regretfully. “And the prep courses for the French test are so expensive so I’ll have to renew my international licence from AAA (American Automobile Association) every year to drive in this country. But you don’t have to.” She was very persuasive, even taking the time to pick up a form from the Sous-préfecture for me.

So, with her encouragement, I completed the form and we drove to Beziers to drop off the application. The office, far from the main entry to the Sous-préfecture, was tiny and full. I think some people mistakenly assumed that this was the office for the carte grise as well so the queue was fairly long but it moved rather quickly. As our number was called, we approached one of the two windows. The fonctionnaire reviewed my dossier, checked whether Virginia was one of the U.S. states eligible for reciprocity, did a number on her computer and turned to us to explain the next steps. She was giving the instructions about the same time the man facing the next window started to talk loudly to the other fonctionnaire. I could barely hear myself talk much less hear the lady in my window. It was frustrating. It’s hard enough to understand French; much harder to understand when one can barely hear it spoken. But not wanting to hold up the queue, we left the office. Outside, we tried to decipher what little we heard. “She said return in two week,” my friend says. “What’s this about getting the attestation before I can get my licence?” I asked her. We both were bewildered but figured that, with the two stamped and self-addressed envelopes, they will likely contact us.

Fast forward 6 weeks and I still have not heard from the Sous-préfecture. “Mom, maybe they said douze semaine not deux semaine.” First daughter chided me. “ You have a hard time understanding what people say here, “ So I waited and waited. In the meantime, I received a speeding ticket which included 1 point on my licence. Which, of course, I didn’t have. No worries, my neighbour  tells me. You are in the system and once you get your permis, it will already have 1 point on it. Hmmm, maybe this why I have not heard from them. Maybe they rejected my application because of the speeding ticket. These thoughts ran through my head but were hardly satisfying. So one day, in Beziers for photos to renew my carte sejour, I just happened to pass by the office. It was empty. Yes! No sense embarrassing myself in front of others.

So with heart in hand, dictionary in pocket, I walked in and took a number. When it was called, I hesitatingly spoke to the fonctionnaire and asked why my application was taking so long. Is there a problem, perhaps? She asked for my identification, went through the files, and took out the attestation. Apparently, I was supposed to pick it up after two weeks. So they had to modify the date to make it current. They also demanded my U.S. licence. They told me that they had to verify its validity. I waited for a minute or two until a man came out of the office and handed me my attestation. He told me it was good for about 2 months and it was a proxy document for my licence.

In a month’s time, one of my self-addressed stamped envelopes was delivered with a notice to pick up my French licence. Once again, I made the trek to the Sous-préfecture. Luckily, it was not full. I presented my identification, the attestation and the notice. And then I received, gratefully and proudly, my permis de conduire. Good until 2029!!!

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