Stephen Bayley: It's the end of an era on French roads

The View From Here: Driving in France

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Eight hours between bottle and throttle is the rule for airline pilots. The rule for drivers should be at least as severe. Strict abstention should be the unnegotiable norm before driving or flying, but now, with a sophistication worthy of the heirs of Voltaire, the French have found a drink-drive compromise.

In its combination of strict authoritarianism with implied licentiousness, there is something magnificently French about the new requirement to carry a breathalyser in your car. Is not this an invitation to test the limits of transgression? The temptation must surely be to see just how far you can go before your BAC (blood-alcohol content) reaches criminal levels. Perhaps another little glass? Pourquoi non? Let's see.

Along with a hi-vis tabard and orange warning triangle, from 1 July the breathalyser joins the melancholy catalogue of mandatory apparatus required by drivers in France. These items tell a chastening story of the ever-present dangers of calamity and vice in our dark and disturbing world.

Just as Michelin developed those neat little icons indicating the availability of comfort, a pool, a trouser-press, quietness, deliciousness in hotels, Sarkozy's government is surely now working on an iconology of repression and santé et de sécurité to be stamped upon every autoroute billet. Tabard? Check! Triangle? Check! Breathalyser? Damn! Road journeys in France were once very much focused on the pursuit of pleasure. Soon they will be more concerned with avoiding arrest.

No one condones drink-driving, but the French do seem very busy removing from their culture all the curiosities of morals that made it so distinctive and attractive. Who else could institutionalise le cinq-à-sept, a dedicated time slot for fornication? To add to an enlarging and flatulent national appetite for potable gas and edible grease, there is now the compulsory breathalyser, a product of the American puritan imagination. Inelegantly and cruelly, to stigmatise, early versions were known as the Drunkometer.

My own assumptions about pleasure, indeed, my assumptions about the very purposes of life itself, were to a large extent formed by early images of single men in French restaurants studiously reading a newspaper, solemnly eating a prix fixe with its half-bottle of claret and then steadily remounting their Citroëns or Peugeots. How wonderful this was. Now these solitary gastronomes, heralds of French civilisation, face a trip to Devil's Island à perpette.

Increasingly stringent drink-driving laws in France have threatened the existence of country restaurants. It was not that the quiet period after lunch on the roads of la France tranquille was characterised by dissipated paysans weaving their Renaults drunkenly between arbres de linéage and crashing into ditches. It was just that certain indulgences were ... tolerated.

But no longer. Something dangerous has been lost. And something troubling has been gained: expanded territory for bureaucratic interference in the conduct of lunch.