October 14, 2009 6:08:25 PM CEST
I am a yank expat living in Tarn et Garonne who drove for 5 years on my California license before my auto insurance was, without warning, cancelled over this license issue. I can tell you from first hand experience that you do not want your current assurance cancelled. It puts you into a national category which makes acquiring a new policy very expensive (triple)... even after acquiring a French license.
After receiving the shock of cancellation, I went into overdrive researching my options. It boiled down to two; returning to a US state which reciprocates with France and acquiring one of their driving licenses, or biting the bullet and going through the ordeal of passing the French exam. I chose the latter.
So that I could drive in the interim, I was forced to rent a sans permis. This was all that I could get assurance for without a French license. That was a humbling and pricey experience. The car (if you wish to call it that - more like a riding lawn mower) cost Euros 750 per month, which included assurance. It got me by for 3 months of driving school.
I was fortunate that a Scot expat, who was my first French language professeur, was the friend of a reputable driving school owner in a nearby village. We arranged lessons there with an instructress whose English was as marginal as my French, but we managed. This school focused exclusively on getting me through the written part of the exam. I never set foot in one of their cars until after I had passed the first stage of the exam and was scheduled for the practical driving examination. Since I had been driving for over 40 years, they presumed that I was already proficient in that department. I had only two driving sessions, three days prior to the examiner's arrival for the final. This was simply to familiarize me with the usual routes taken and to point out any bad driving habits that might be detrimental to my examination.
A word of caution: Many of the French driving schools do not want etrangers to pass the exam. They will take your money, week after week, and drive you around the neighborhood in their cars with little or no preparation for the written exam. The less likely you are to pass the first exam, the longer you pay for their lessons, since you cannot take the final driving exam without first passing the written portion. Its a tawdry racket which preys on those without the language skills to pass the exam.
During my research I discovered that the French exam can be taken in Paris, in English. Since I am 5+ hours south of Paris, this was impractical for me.
You can take an interpreter to the exam with you. This person must be a licensed traducteur in your prefecture. I did this, since failure was not an option for me, but due to my diligent preparation I think that I could have passed without him. You must get 35 correct responses out of 40 questions. I got 37 on the first attempt. The traducteur was of assistance on two questions, which had I missed, I would have still passed. Also, most prefectures have one day a month exams for etrangers. The etranger exam allows twice as long to answer the questions than does the standard French exam.
If you decide to acquire a French license through the exam process, make certain that you enroll in a reputable and long established school. Make it perfectly clear that you want to stress the passing of the preliminary written exam. Try to find other epats who have gone through this for school references.
The school will provide you DVDs that will allow you to study the virtual test at home on your computer, under the same conditions and time constraints as the actual French exam, which is video scenarios projected on a large wall screen, with multiple choice answers. You respond through an electronic remote, much like a standard TV remote. I had three different test DVDs, with 10 - 40 question exams apiece. That was a total of 1200 examples of the questions used on the exam. Almost every evening I would sit at the computer, with the rulebook in front of me and take these exams... pausing to look up answers in the book that I was unsure of. Once you get yourself consistently making over 35 on these trial exams, you are ready for the real deal. The actual exam questions were a breeze compared to the DVD questions, which were full of the trick questions that the French test sometimes includes.
Even with marginal French language skills, this is doable, IF you apply yourself. Prepare for some expenses, though. Since I had to rent the sans permis (boite de merde), hire a traducteur for the exam, and costs of the school and license fees, the total tab for my three month ordeal ran just north of Euros 4000.00.
If you plan to stay in France, I would not put off this odious task. A side benefit is the language skills that you will acquire in the process.