John Lichfield: What a relief to be driving in disguise

Parisians, it seems, are choosing to identify with the département of their grand-parents; or their holiday homes
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The Independent Online

By their cars shall you know them. Not any more, it appears. Parisian motorists, disliked all over France for being over-aggressive, under-friendly and simply for being Parisian, have found a way to camouflage their origins.

Since last April, France has switched to a new system of car registration. The number no longer finishes with the two-digit code of the département or county (75 for Paris, 13 for the Bouches-de-Rhône and so on). Instead, the number-plate carries a separate sticker indicating its département and region.

The choice of these stickers is voluntary. Cars can legally display any département number code that their owner desires. You can, if you wish, live in Paris and drive around in a car displaying the code number of a faraway, backwoods département.

The number of new cars carrying the dreaded Paris code, "75", has fallen by more than half. The départements of choice are 2a and 2b (upper and lower Corsica), 87 (Haute-Vienne in Limousin) and 56 (Morbihan in Brittany). Parisians, it seems, are choosing to identify with the département of their grand-parents; or their holiday homes.

It so happens that my leased car came due for renewal this autumn. I faced an existential choice, Should I remain, in automobile terms, a Parisian? Or should I migrate to Calvados (14), where we own a small cottage? I ordered a "14" sticker.

My fiercely Parisian children were dismayed. They call the new car the "ploucmobile". "Plouc" is the rude French word for yokel.

In lower Normandy, however, I am finally accepted as a local and possibly also a yokel. As I trundle along the lanes in my number 14 car, the incidence of rude gestures has diminished dramatically.

The Armani mystery

Armani Man is back. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a man with an Italian accent who was touring Paris in a battered car offering people free Giorgio Armani suits. The article provoked a lengthy correspondence about similar Armani Men operating all over the Western world. There was clearly some kind of scam. But what?

I was strolling to work the other day when a man with an Italian accent beckoned me towards his battered car. After pretending to be lost, he offered me a free Armani suit. "I have XL," he said. Blasted cheek.

I greeted him like a long-lost friend and asked him to explain the scam. People all over the world were anxious to know what was going on, I said.

He wound up his window and drove away. The mystery continues.