Les interdictions

No dogs allowed. No campfires allowed. No entry, no talking, no breathing. Okay, I made those last two up.

The first thing the visitor notices on arriving in France is the number of things that are you are not allowed to do.

And you quickly become familiar with this word: interdit. It is used to describe both the things themselves that are prohibited (e.g. chiens interdits), the act of forbidding, interdire (to prohibit) and the resulting bans, interdictions.

You are not allowed to walk on the grass, wear your helmet in a store, ride a bike while wearing a headset. Aside from speeding, there are a great many things you are not allowed to do while driving in France. Not being allowed to use a smart phone even hands-free is one that drives me nuts. My guess is that ‘the GPS made me do it’ will not be a viable excuse if you are stopped by the police.

Alternative wordings include the oft-seen ‘défense de fumer’ (no smoking). But défense de cracher? Apparently people needed to be told not to spit in the Paris metro back in the 70s.

Fortunately, the second thing you learn is that many if not most of these bans are somewhat theoretical. This is what makes life bearable in France. A great many rules of which only a small percentage are to be taken absolutely seriously.

The challenge is knowing which ones. A lot of faux pas (as I’ve posted about before) can be made if you get it wrong, and you may want to weigh the chances of getting caught against the associated penalty.

I know, for example, that the park where I walk my dogs by the lake is theoretically forbidden to dogs (and horses) all year long but that the chances of anyone objecting or even seeing me in the off-season winter months are virtually nil. Also, it’s a dumb law. So, I take it as my civic duty to break it as often as possible.

Where we live not far from the border with Switzerland, I have been stopped for driving a car with Swiss plates. It seems there is an obscure rule that you are not allowed to drive a company car across a border other than to go to or from work. I’m pretty sure they only trot that one out when they’re looking for an excuse to get up someone’s nose. Thankfully I got myself out of it by arguing with the cops — when they caught up with me. The thing was, it had not been at all clear that I was being asked to stop. I pointed this out in firm but polite terms while expressing my astonishment at the crazy rule. It was one of those times I realized that I had become truly French. My formerly polite Canadian self would never have dared to argue with a police officer.

What forbidden action or item would you ban? Or, as some have suggested, would you create this as a rule?

Forbidden to forbid!

22 thoughts on “Les interdictions

  1. I remember being so baffled by the “defense de” signs when I first visited France. Defense of smoking???
    As for dog-free parks, I seek them out, being terrified of dogs. Encountering a dog on a leash is one thing, but a strange dog off-leash is frightening. I don’t want to play, make friends, be sniffed or licked or jumped on and certainly not bitten.
    I also argued with French gendarmes on a traffic stop. It was a Sunday morning and I was in an unfamiliar town. Not having GPS, I had pulled into the parking lot of a business (which was closed, since it was Sunday) to look at a map. Then I set off again. Immediately, I saw the flashing lights of the gendarmes, so I pulled to the side to let them by and was shocked that they pulled up behind me. My offense: I had exited the empty parking lot onto the empty road via the parking lot entry. I argued that it wasn’t clear, that the parking lot was empty and the business closed. No harm, no foul. The gendarmes seemed to enjoy giving me a hard time. Finally I was so frustrated I cried and they let me go, telling me to never do it again.

    1. That’s hilarious! It’s true that the notion of ‘defending’ something goes against the idea of being prohibited! How funny that the gendarmes gave you grief for such a non-issue. I think sometimes they are bored out in the boonies and looking for easy targets. I would have cried too… IMHO, no dog should ever be off-leash if the owner is not nearby to reign it in at the least sign of someone who is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, I often encounter other dogs and their owners who seem to be oblivious to any potential ‘gene’.

  2. As you say a thing that I like in France is you can zigzag between some rules if you find the right feeling to get out of trouble .
    One late night in Paris “Les Halles” neighborhood full of very narrow streets of which the majority seemed to be “sens interdits”, I got fed up and took a narrow one in the forbidden way and … a cop ! Young, blonde moustache, the kind I find difficult to humanize . Fortunately my car plate showed I was from some lost region so I deliberately played the role of a “plouc”, even amplifying my southern accent . “I am lost, all the streets are forbidden, I don’t understand a thing here …” The cop looked at me with contempt and decided to give me a “punishment” of his own intead of a ticket . “OK, you take the whole street backwards” . It was a very narrow passage with cars parked on both sides, my car was wide, but I tell you I was happy of this original fine and I was thinking “Good I live in France, a thing like this would never happen in Norway or Switzerland” .

    1. Zigzagging is the perfect description! Life is too short to be overly law abiding. In your case though, I would have rather paid the fine than be forced to reverse down that street — especially with cops as an audience. Sounds like you played it well, though, right up to the accent! (And I must admit I’ve been tempted to pretend not to understand French sometimes, but haven’t got the ‘sang froid’ to pull it off.) 😉

      1. In May 68 this sign appeared on many walls : ‘Il est interdit d’interdire” . Good old time when I still recognized my countrymen .
        Smiling with your theme, I remember a well known graffiti that foreigners might ignore . You know, there are a few places where you can find this signs : “Défense de courir” . One day a malicious hand had written on the same wall this following :”sous peine de poursuites” .
        Explanation for strangers,:”sous peine de poursuites” is the legal warning meaning “under penalty of prosecution”, but poursuite in the physical sense also means chasing a runaway .
        This brilliant joke was so good it soon became famous all around the country . Too bad its author remains unknown up to now ! I’d vote to bury him beside the Unknown Soldier because this graffiti expresses the Frenchness I prefer .

      2. Interesting to know where the slogan came from — 1968 was such a watershed year around the world and especially in France. And I would love to be the wag who wrote that hilarious line! 😂

    2. I was in a taxi in Paris that, rather than go around and around to get right nearby on a one-way street, simply backed in and went down the street in reverse. In the spirit if not the letter of the law.

  3. I will always remember when the Paris subway had those silly first and second class cars and your mother, aunt Renie and I moved from a crowded car with no seats to a completely empty one. Within a few minutes two official looking Frenchmen started to try to tell us we had to leave. While you could get the idea from their gestures what they wanted, we had no idea why and refused to move. I shrugged and spoke in English which they obviously did not understand. We stood there arguing for several minutes until I realized we we approaching our stop at which point we were happy to leave.

  4. That photo of the reclining cat. HAHAHAA! It sums up beautifully the French knack for finding a technical exception to the rule — or in some cases ignoring it entirely. (Like you, I used to let my dog run right past the “no dogs” sign at the golf course in the winter.) As for what I would ban if I had the power? People who continue face-timing on their cellphone in a public restroom. And to be clear: I would ban the people, not just the practice. 🙂

    1. Isn’t it just? And so telling of the entitled attitude of cats all over the world! I have never seen anyone overtly Facetiming in public — let alone a bathroom. (To be honest, I’m always afraid to even check my phone in there, in case I accidentally capture something unmentionable!) Here in France there is a real reluctance to splash private conversations across the public space. The worst example I can think of is on a train, and that is also highly annoying.

  5. The joys of les interdictions! Are rules not made to be broken? Of course. The trick is to not get caught. They seem to be particularly sticky over there…

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