With its stunning landscapes, joi de vivre, and mouthwatering gastronomy, it’s no surprise that France is the number one most visited country in the world. While a big part of travelling is to remain open to new and unexpected experiences, there are a few things a traveller can keep in mind to enjoy a safe and enjoyable visit.
If travelling from any of the 28 EU countries, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, the request of a Health Insurance Card or EHIC is free of charge and affords the cardholder the same level of healthcare access as a resident in France. It’s worth noting that the card must be requested ahead of time in the country of origin.
Local pharmacies close at the same time as the rest of the shops, usually around 7pm. Pharmacies take turns to remain open for any urgent purchase after hours, the service is called the Pharmacie de Garde. A website indicates the closest open pharmacy to a particular location.
If calling from a mobile phone, the single European emergency number to call is 112. From a landline or public payphone the 112 number will also work, and there is also a dedicated number for each service: 15 for a medical emergency, 17 for the police, and 18 for the fire brigade or in case of an accident.
Following the tightening up of security in France, the national security program Plan Vigipirate was increased a few notches. Handbags and shopping bags are checked at the entrance of public venues and shops, and visitors must carry with them one form of picture ID at all times. Cooperation and patience during these checks is key for security personnel to be able to conduct their duties effectively. People are also asked to report immediately any unattended bag or object spotted in a public space.
As in any big city, crowded tourist venues are a magnet for opportunists. Underestimating their ability would be a mistake. They are very quick-fingered and disappear as if by magic. Whether in the Louvre, Versailles, or any other museum, restaurant, the Métro or market, always take the usual precautions to avoid becoming an easy target. Keep your valuables tucked away safely, your bag in front of you, swing your backpack around if needed, and don’t carry your wallet in your back pocket. If a ‘kind’ stranger calls your attention to something you just dropped, beware, and give a wide berth to any scuffle, pushing, or rushing the door.
When driving around France, a visibility vest and a warning triangle are required equipment in every vehicle. In contrast, radar detector devices used to spot mobile speed traps are illegal in France. Use of any mobile phone when driving, even with a bluetooth headset, is strictly forbidden.
The set speed limits for rural and populated areas do not always feature in repeated signage, so if the driver is not paying attention they may drive past the first sign and be unaware that the speed limit has changed. As a rule of thumb, urban area limit is 50kph, reduced to 30kph near schools and pedestrian centres. Unless otherwise marked, limits on roads are 90kph or 80kph in the rain while motorways are 130kph or 110kph when wet.
This may sound obvious but in France vehicles circulate on the right, and roundabouts flow anti-clockwise. It isn’t unheard of for drivers arriving from a left-hand driving country to get distracted and momentarily swerve into the wrong lane. There is also a lesser-known rule that startles newcomers and that’s the right-hand priority rule or priorité à droite. It’s a carry over from an outdated custom but still applies in some cases like car parks and unmarked junctions, or those marked with a red triangle with a black X, and whenever traffic lights are out of order or flashing. When in doubt, yield to oncoming vehicles approaching from your right.
Paris implemented a sticker system to fight pollution. The best way to avoid headaches is not to bring a car to Paris at all. Finding parking is tiresome and expensive and the getting around Paris via the public transport system is easy and affordable. If you must drive in Paris, even if foreign registered, the Crit’Air vignette is mandatory, available for purchase online.
In December and January bakeries and cafés in France will feature a delicious frangipane-filled pastry called Galette des Rois, a tradition to mark Epiphany. A metal or porcelain fève, a tiny figurine, is hidden in the galette before baking and is said to bring good luck for the rest of the year to the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ who finds it… except if you sink your teeth into the fêve — all that will bring is a rush trip to the nearest dentist.
Every year France is blessed with a bumper crop of delicious wild mushrooms, and picking them is a favourite pastime… but ingesting the wrong kind can make you very, very ill and even have long-term repercussions. Pharmacists offer a vetting service and will inspect the pick of the day to make sure there are no offending impostors lurking. Better yet, sourcing mushrooms from a qualified market vendor is the safest choice.
Particularly true in the countryside but also to a certain degree in the city, locals in public transport, restaurants or cafés may be slightly startled by visitors who speak loudly or brashly. It isn’t anyone’s fault, just a difference in habits. People in France tend to keep their voices down in public as a courtesy to others. A loud voice and expansive body language could be perceived as intimidating, even to burliest of countrymen, and may affect the way they greet or welcome the newcomer even with the best intentions on both sides.
Open fields of sunflowers and lavender are irresistible to open-air ramblers, and it’s perfectly fine to enjoy this wholesome pursuit as long as the hiker remembers that this is working farmland and there are local customs and rules to follow. It is extremely unusual for hikers to be trampled or harmed by cattle, but warnings are regularly issued for people to be careful and apply common sense when approaching fields with cows, especially bulls. Guns during hunting season are another matter entirely. Hunters are required to post a notice when they are out and about, anything that says chasse or battue and it’s a sign to turn around and find another walking trail. Wearing brightly coloured clothing is also a wise move.
The wild boar or sanglier is widespread across the whole of France, living in forested areas and occasionally coming out in the open fields to forage. They are large and powerful, but don’t pose any danger as they normally shy away from humans. If they are frightened, however, or protecting their young, they may become defensive and charge. Best for hikers to give the beast its personal space and avoid misunderstandings.
Each summer France runs a heatwave warning system, the plan canicule, intended to prevent the health hazards of heatstroke, and every year a number of eager sun seekers ignore the warnings and end up in hospital. Weather reports will quote four levels of alert. It is easy to underestimate the effect of a heatwave so if it is posted as the maximum red level 4, the smart thing to do is to stay out of direct sun and drink water at regular intervals. This is particularly important for children and the elderly.
It is customary in France for patrons to greet the shop attendant and other customers when they enter. A simple bonjour will do. Same thing when addressing anyone in the street to ask a question, even if you’ll be switching to English, the ice-breaker is always a polite bonjour monsieur/madame/mademoiselle. Other magic words that will open many doors are please and thank you. When trying to get the attention of a server, for example, a gentle s’il vous plaît with a discreet raised hand will do the job, and a merci afterwards is like music to their ears.
Hopefully this will never be needed, but if a foreign visitor to France needs emergency help, as is the case on any trip abroad, the first port of call is to contact the nearest embassy, consulate or high commission.