Published in The Ottawa Citizen newspaper on its Op-Ed page in September 1992, this was my method of getting back at the pain of having to retake my driver’s license test in France many years after taking one in Canada that could not be transferred to France. The article payment also helped me pay for all the driver’s lessons I had to take in order to pass the test. In France, it is a scam system in which only the rich may earn a driver’s license as the obligatory lessons cost around six times the average monthly wage. Although I wrote this article more than 20 years ago, I think most of it still holds perfectly true. Whereas I once worked as a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and found that a book called “A Semiotic Approach to the Circus” had nothing to do with real life in the circus, I did consider that learning the French highway code, and applying it on the road, was definitely a semiotic exercise:
The French have contributed much to semiotics, the science of signs. But while the works of Roland Barthes or Claude Levis-Strauss are little read, the country’s greatest popular contribution to the science is the education everyone must undergo for their driver’s licence.
Modestly called the Code de la Route, the 200-page book of rules of the road would better be called A Semiotic Approach to Driving.
Because what is important in the code is not any desired end result, like safety, but the significance of the sign, and the driver’s ability to interpret its meaning during testing period, while never deigning to apply it on the road.
For instance, one of the most important questions is: What color is the air in the breathalyser before you blow into it? (Answer: yellow.) And what color does it become if you have had too much to drink? (Answer: green.)
The signification “Do not drink and drive,” is barely discussed.
Speed limits are suggested by coded messages in the environment and other strange signals. Example: What means a sign with two arrows, one pointing down and the other up?
Answer: speed is reduced to 90 kilometres an hour from 100.
To understand this, the student must analyze the broader system of coded messages: On a route pour automobiles drive at 90, unless your lane is separated from the oncoming lane by a solid divider such as a piece of earth or a guard rail, in which case drive at 110. On an autoroute drive at 130.
But be careful, you must decipher your position thus: destination signs with a blue background indicate you are on an autoroute, those with a white or green background indicate a route pour automobiles.
But the rare speed signs in numerals are even trickier. If the number appears on a round blue sign you are obliged to go no slower than stated, if it is on a round white sign with a red rim, go no faster. If it is on a square blue sign, it is only a recommendation, and you may go any speed you wish.
But during the test be very careful about the finer details of signs.
A slide presents a sign in front of your nose that indicates there is a sharp turn to the left.
What does the signalisation tell you? If you answered there is a sharp turn left in front of your nose, response C, then you are wrong.
Because 300 miles in the background at the top of a hill on the other side of a valley you may see two faint white poles that indicate a sharp turn right.
The correct response is D: there is a sharp turn left and a sharp turn right. Sucker.
Or: If you are cruising at 90 and see a sign on a white background that announces the name of what appears to be a small town, you must reduce your speed to 50, not use your horn, and park only on the right side of the road — should you need to stop for lunch — because you have entered what is known as an agglomeration.
If you are cruising at 90 and you see a sign on a black background that announces the name of what appears to be a small town, you may continue to cruise at 90, use your horn, and park wherever you like, throwing fear into those who follow, because you have entered what is known as a lieu-dit.
And finally: If you see a triangular sign with an exclamation mark ! , this means they have not yet come up with a name for the horror you are about to encounter, so beware.
It is perhaps this sign that should have been installed in front of the College de France in Paris that day in 1980 when poor Roland Barthes was struck by a car and killed as he tried to cross the Rue des Ecoles on foot.
But with every student enrolled in the 400 driving schools in Paris paying thousands of francs to take a minimum 20 lessons before passing their test, it is natural that once the humiliating process is over they want to let out their aggression on other drivers, and on semioticians like M. Barthes.