The little car you can drive in France without a licence

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Source: BBC

If you are planning on driving in France, beware – one could be heading straight for you at the next roundabout. Carolyn Brown, who lives part of the year in Brittany, has a cautionary tale about a very small car.

Losing one’s driving licence in the UK is a serious matter – expensive and, to say the least, very inconvenient.

But in France, no licence? No problem. You can simply go shopping for a VSP a voiture sans permis – a small two-seater car that anyone aged 14 or over can take out on the road with as little as four hours’ experience behind the wheel, sometimes not even that.

It’s impossible to say how many there are as no official figures exist. It is what the French call a chiffre noir – an unknown quantity.

You’ll probably hear them coming first, a high-pitched whine like a sewing machine being run at full throttle. If you get stuck behind one on a windy rural lane, tant pis. Top speed is 45km per hour (28mph). It’s probably a good idea to stop in the next lay-by and admire the view for a while rather than sit fuming in its wake.

On market day in my nearest town here in Brittany the little voitures sans permis splutter into the main street. Although the literal translation is “car without licence” it is in fact the driver who doesn’t need to bother himself or herself with any proof of ability behind the wheel.

Once seen as an anachronism that, given time, would inevitably be legislated out of existence they remain a vital means of transport for an ageing rural population. For the most part they are scruffy and battered. Their bodywork is faded and peeling, often touched-up with a spot of household gloss paint. Wire and gaffer tape hold loose panels together and one I saw had its bumper held in place with washing line fashioned into an elaborate blanket stitch.

VSP next to lettuce stallImage copyrightAlamy

My local notaire, or solicitor, admits she is nervous on Thursdays – which is market day. Especially of the old ladies. The problem, she told me is one of inheritance. A husband who always did all the driving passes away and the voiturette is inherited by his wife.

Because it’s impossible to survive here without wheels she will nervously trundle into town at snail’s pace. She won’t do much damage because she is going so slowly. Insurance will only get expensive if she hurts someone, but most of the time it’s just a busted wing mirror or a slight scratch and the insurance company just takes the hit.

I tell her that I am frankly astonished that VSPs still exist.

“Well,” she says with a shrug, “there are people who would still drive without a licence but they would be in much more powerful, and therefore more dangerous cars.”

The fact is that a lot of conducteurs who lose their licence because they are too fond of the pastis, walk out of court down to their local VSP outlet, et voilathey can be back on the road in hours. Yes, they ought to have insurance, which is pricey if you have a record of illness or a fondness for alcohol – it can set you back as much 85 euros (£63) a month. A reputable dealership won’t sell you a car unless you can show insurance, but it’s not a problem if you pick one up from your mate.

I asked around in my local bar but the drinkers were coy about their reasons for driving sans permis.

One chap told me the theory exam for a full licence was too difficult. But in a quiet moment the patron told me what he said was a common story. One of his regulars lost his licence and bought an ancient voiture sans permis. When his licence was reinstated, he sold the voiturette to a drinking chum who had just had his licence taken away . It changed hands once more in the same way and then after a year or so the original owner (who evidently hadn’t kicked his pastis habit) bought it back again.

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