About When to visit
Climate: when to go, and to which parts
France rarely suffers from extremes of climate. It is cooler in the north, wetter in the west, and greyer in the east. Paris can indeed be delightful in the spring, but it is also hot and humid at the height of summer, and bleak and grey in winter. However, these unremarkable regional and seasonal variations are easily survived with the help of a little educated packing.
Average daily temperatures in Paris range from 37.6°F (3.1°C) in January to 66.2°F (19°C) in July. Nice, on the Côte d’Azur is of course warmer: average daily temperature in January: 41.9°F (5.5°C); in July it is 73.7°F (23.2°C).
The best seasons to visit France are spring or autumn, either side of the main June to August tourist season. In mid-summer, accommodation prices rocket, the roads are jammed and the beaches packed. During winter, November until March, many hotels and some restaurants are closed in summer-oriented holiday areas such as Brittany.
French national holidays are particularly bad days to travel, as are the traditional annual summer holiday weekends at either end of August.
Common sense is the only guideline. Nothing beats comfortable footwear whether you are planning to stalk the cultural high spots of Paris or hike in the Pyrenees. Bring (sensible) jewellery if the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré is your goal.
Seriously, be prepared to wrap up warmly in winter; pack a lightweight raincoat at any time of year; and remember that hotel laundry bills are astronomical. If a meal in a gourmet restaurant is on the agenda, bring something a little dressy. The French are undeniably chic, and it is best to meet them on their own terms.
Visas are not required of citizens of the EC, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand provided they have a full passport and plan a business or tourist trip to France lasting no longer than 90 days. Other nationals should apply to the nearest French consulate for a transit visa (three days only), a carte de séjour (90 days multiple entry), or a visa de circulation (valid for multiple trips of up to 90 days over three years).
Persons over 18 may drive in France on a full overseas driving license. To hire a car you must be between 21-25 or over (depending on the hire company), and have been in possession of a full driving licence for at least one year.
Drivers must be able to produce the vehicle registration document and proof of insurance. A policy extension (in the U.K., a ‘green card’) to make the cover comprehensive while motoring abroad is not obligatory, but without it your insurance is only the legal minimum.
Medical and travel insurance
EC citizens are entitled to health care in other member countries providing they have the reciprocal health care form. But, all medical expenses must be paid for at the time and are reimbursed in part after a long-winded claims procedure. Other nationalities are recommended to purchase (or to arrange as an extension of an existing policy) medical and travel insurance before departure.
Local currency is the French franc (F or FF), divided into 100 centimes. There are 500F, 100F, 50F, and 20F bills, 10F, 5F, 2F and IF coins, plus 50, 20, 10 and 5 centime coins. The Euro, was introduced on 1st January 1999 (fixed at a rate of 6.55957FF to one Euro) and prices are quoted in both francs and Euros. Euro bank notes and coins are to be introduced on 1 January 2002.
Travellers cheques are the best way to guard your money. French franc travellers cheques are useful if you are venturing off the beaten track where the currency exchange rate may not be common knowledge. American Express, Diners Club, Master Card/Eurocard and Visa/Carte Bleue credit cards are widely accepted. Japan Credit Bureau (JCB) cards are also sometimes accepted. Visa is the most widespread. Apply in advance, and you can be issued with a PIN number which will allow you to use your credit card in French cash dispensers.
The regulations follow general EC rules, which were changed in 1993 to allow virtually free movement of goods across EC borders, provided these goods are for the importer’s personal use. There are now guidelines for individual import and export of such goods as wines, spirits and tobacco. Customs officers still maintain their vigilance, often covertly, against prohibited goods such as drugs and weapons which might assist terrorist activity.
Tourist information outside France
The French Government Tourist Office (also known as Maison de la France) can provide a raft of special interest brochures and useful information. Offices are in most capital cities.
Local customs: what to expect and how to behave
McDonalds may have infiltrated the Champs-Elysées, but you can bet that frogs legs and haute couture will never be compromised. The French have an intense pride in their cuisine, their couture and their culture, which can give an aura of smugness and superiority: but bearing in mind that they have given the world cognac, Chanel and Camus, perhaps they have a point. You won’t go far wrong with the French if you give credit where it is due: praise a good meal, compliment a beautiful dress, marvel at a national monument. Once foreigners have gained their confidence, they are usually affability itself. From the moment that your coffee and croissant appear on your first morning in France, you’ll be aware that things are done differently here. (Already, you may have done battle with the draught excluder French hotels provide in lieu of a pillow – the real pillows, large and square rather than oblong, are kept in the wardrobe.) French coffee is strong, black, served in thimbles (except at breakfast, when it comes in a bowl, with or without a handle), and is likely to keep you awake at night. It is the lynchpin of café society, beloved of all French from students to society matrons and accompanies voluble discussions on the most important topics on their minds, which include sport (especially soccer, cycling, tennis), shopping, salacious gossip, cinema, current affairs and philosophy. not necessarily in that order.
Meeting and greeting is an art form in France, and the café is a useful place to observe local ritual. Among friends, the young deliver three or four cheek-smackingly ostentatious kisses at every meeting (frequently extended to never-before-encountered friends of friends); two suffice for their elders. Hand-shaking is de rigeur between acquaintances, both on a business and a social level. If you are a visiting head of state, prepare for the presidential embrace. It is polite in a small shop to acknowledge the shopkeeper formally (“Bonjour madame/monsieur”) and you can include other customers as well (“messieurs/mesdames”); the same goes for restaurants or cafés. This form of courtesy is much appreciated and you’ll find that it can enhance your status.
Lunch is the main meal of the day in France. Most businesses, tourist attractions and shops close for two hours in the north and up to four or five hours in the south for this event. Plan your day around it; the good news is that this is often the time to find easy (even free) parking in town centres.
If you are doing business in France, patience is more than a help: it is an essential virtue. Be ready for the formalities and elaborate courtesies; prepare some of your own. Also be prepared for frankly expressed reservations about goods or services you are offering, even if your French customer admires what you have to offer and has decided to buy.
Banks and post offices may have a laid-back (but nonetheless efficient) approach, with shirt-sleeved tellers and gossip over the counter, so it pays not to be in a hurry.