Why the US and French Driving License Exchange Program is Discriminatory.


I have a confession to make. I’ve been pretty miserable since the end of July. The end of that month marked the final day I was legally able to drive in Europe. It’s upsetting. I lost a huge piece of my life and my work as a travel blogger; and certainly the intent of improving the one thing I haven’t been able to do for a very long time: visiting my mother on a whim, as opposed to a 9-hour flight once a year.

I love to drive. Automatic. Manual. I’ll go hours and hours. I’ve done it a LOT, legally, with one speeding ticket, and without causing an accident. Now, when I tell someone I’m unable to drive, my 25 years of driving experience is reduced to have you been a bad girl.

I haven’t. My situation is surely what it must feel like to be the file that has fallen between the cracks of the bureaucratic machine. Here’s what happened:

1. Renewed US green card in plenty of time before expiration. I was given a 6-month extension. I’ve been approved but have yet to receive the card, 1.5 years later. I am told this is due to workload.
2. A US green card holder’s DL has the same expiration date as said green card. The DMV gave an equal extension. That’s it!
3. Out of 50 US states, 32 have no federal agreement with the Republic of France to evenly exchange driver’s licenses. But 18 states do. The same goes for French people moving to the States.
4. Last June, I signed up with a driving school in Normandy. The inspector there refused to sign my paperwork on the premise that I needed a carte de séjour (the French equivalent of a green card.)

For the record, I’m okay with at least a theoretical exam as part of migration. Traffic signs are not largely universal and do change. New ones are added. And before learning the rules, there is the terminology to consider.

The Green Card issue is also perfectly acceptable. For a while. Having lived in the States legally for 23 years, and dutifully paid taxes, I do raise an objection to the duration of processing and since as a green card holder/spouse of a US citizen I’ll continue to file US taxes, I’d like to retain the possibility to work for a US company.

If that were all there is to it, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of me. But there are several things that are not okay:

1. 18 states have an agreement with France for an even exchange of driver’s licenses: Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Connecticut. This means the rules apply to “some” US driver’s license holders, but not to others.

Why the plan doesn’t work:

• In the US, a driver’s license can be changed from state to state with a minimum of bureaucracy. They are effectively equal.
• France makes a distinction between automatic -and manual transmissions: a permit for an automatic doesn’t allow you to drive a manual; a manual permit allows for driving an automatic. There are no checks and balances reflected on a US driver’s license; and no way to verify.
• And: the no-exchange 32 states are imposed driving restrictions for 3 years like any first-time driver. A clean driving record is completely disregarded.

2. Lack of customer service in my first attempt. The verdict that I needed a different piece of identity than what I presented, was blindly accepted, and the information I gathered on my own consistently disregarded.

It should have been corrected. Here’s why:

• Copies of everything are required to accomplish any bureaucracy in France. I’m a Belgian. EU law says I do not need a carte de séjour to live in France. Do. Not.
• Information for foreigners and EU citizens is publicly available for anyone to find.
• Is it a lack of training? I’ll give both ladies the benefit of the doubt that it had nothing to do with discrimination against migrants.

We obtained information on four different occasions. When I shared my findings with the driving instructor, I was told that until I received my residency card to live in France, the inspector would not sign the application. Also, I should take the theory classes, on the premise this was obligatory.

I refused on principle. This was also incorrect. On one of my visits to the bureaucratic authority, I was handed the contact information of the office overseeing the inspectors. I chose not to then, but weeks went by without so much as an acknowledgement from the driving school. When I followed up, I was told I’d be sent the inspector’s contact info. I never received it.

I went over their heads. Here I asked if I’d received the correct information. (Yes) Should I go ahead and take the tests without any further obligations? (Yes) The lady at this office suggested that I – me – tell the inspector, and the driving instructor, to give her a call.

“Well, what’s wrong with your dialing finger?” I thought to myself. Anyway, at that point it was too late for me to get through it in Normandy. The process takes a two to three months apparently.

3. The expense. The cost for the privilege of earning that French driver’s license proves steep for 32 states’ driver’s license holders.

A breakdown:

• 50% more per month for car insurance due to foreign driver’s licenses
• $65 administrative costs in Normandy
• $200 every 6 months to retain a mail-forwarding service in the States, the only way the INS sends a green card when out of country. A mail-forwarding service requires a power-of-attorney, making it all legit. I accept this, but the duration is an issue.
• I’m up to about $700 so far, for my French driving permit. As it turns out I have some issues driving a manual transmission efficiently. Who knew? But I can see it.
• My husband, who has a language barrier, is up next. An official translator can be provided, at our cost, including accommodations, mileage, and meals. No, thanks!
• Copies, stamps, and identity pictures in Normandy, and the Vendee.
• Time unable to work/ gather information away from home.
• Difficulty level. The French system is notorious for being strict. You are tested on everything from road signs, to the mechanics of a car, to driving economically, and courteously. And then some.

I confess the situation knocked me down a while. That was my time sucking problem. I lost faith in both of the bureaucratic machines I was dealing with, and losing that coveted independence, it took me a while –and a scooter– to climb my way out of feeling trapped.

Personal situation aside, fact is that the agreements between the US and France appear arbitrary and biased. There is a notable disconnect between the reality of migrants with the need to earn an income, and the bureaucratic machine. Revisions are sorely needed. I mean, you can see the writing on the wall, right?

So, dear Presidents Obama and Hollande, and governors with the power to make a difference: one way or the other, pick a side, make a few adjustments that respect our need to work, and then make it equal for all French and US expats.