When is an expiry date not an expiry date?

I’m on my third driving licence. My first, British one was issued in 1979 and had the expiry date of my 70th birthday in 2032. At the time that was in the inconceivably far distant future. Now it’s rather closer than I like to admit!

When we moved to Ireland in 1992, we had to swap our UK licences for Irish ones. That necessity stopped soon afterwards, thanks to the progressive and frankly brilliant European Union, but just a bit too late for us. (However, that hasn’t turned out to be such a bad thing, because even if we’d been able to keep our British licences at that point, we’d be having to exchange them now for French ones due to the looming insanity that is Brexit. It’s currently taking up to a year for expats to get a French licence.) An Irish driving licence is valid for twenty years at a time. That seemed dreadfully restrictive after the seeming infinity of the UK version. Mine was set to run out in 2013.

By that time we were living in France. We hadn’t needed to swap our licences on arrival since the EU ruling on the driving licence of a member state being valid in all member states was now operational. With our UK and Irish licences came the right to drive not only mopeds, motorbikes and cars (with or without trailers or caravans attached) but also minivans and minibuses. I’d never had reason to use any of these allowances, but it was nice to have them there if I ever needed them. So when we exchanged our Irish licences, Chris and I both elected to keep on these extra categories, even though it meant having a medical to do so. On top of that, we’d have to renew these entitlements every five years in order to maintain them.

I was very pleased with my new, credit-card sized permis de conduire when it arrived, although annoyingly it only gives my maiden name even though I provided my married name on the application form. However, that’s obviously what the French do with driving licences, so I tucked it into my purse so that it was always with me when I was in the car, and promptly forgot all about it.

So it was quite a shock to discover the other day that it had expired! Well, apparently expired. On the back of it, it lists the various categories of vehicles and states until which date you can drive them. For cars, B, there is no expiry date, nor for small vans, B1. Ditto for AM and A1 which are respectively mopeds (50cc) and motorbikes with an engine smaller than 125 cc. For all the larger vehicle categories the expiry date was given as 16.10.18. The licence also gives the start date for these various categories, retrospective in every case, but bizarrely there are four different ones: 19.01.93, 4.11.93, 24.10.03 and 26.10.03. I’m still none the wiser, but anyway, it’s those all important expiry dates that are the crucial ones.

And yes, dates plural. As well as the expiry date for those various categories, there’s another expiry date on the front of the permis de conduire. Mine shows 21.10.18, which I only spotted the other day. Chris had seen a post in a forum about French driving licences where someone was saying how theirs had expired. That’s what prompted us into checking ours.

I felt dreadful. Had I been driving illegally for this last few weeks? And what happened now?

Once over the shock, I knuckled down into finding out how to apply for a new permis. I wasn’t going to bother applying for all the extra categories so that would make life simpler. Relatively speaking, at least, because you need to remember that this is France where complexity and confusion reign. Driving licence applications are all done online now, so I created my account with ANTS (Agence Nationale des Titres Sécurisés – it also handles passports and cartes grises, car log books) – and followed the procedure it outline. Next day I got the requisite photo and sent that in, much relieved.

However, what happened in the meantime? Chris had appointed himself as my chauffeur until we could clarify whether I could still legally drive or not. My permis, although that itself now appeared to be out of date, showed no expiry date for my permission to drive a car. According to that I can drive forever!

We called by the insurance office, since I had a bill to pay there anyway. Our concern was whether our motor insurance would still be valid if my permis was out of date. They were as confused as we were but tended towards the belief that since there was no expiry date for driving a car, I could continue to do so. They suggested we call to the gendarmerie to clarify. We’d already considered doing this, but it can be very hard to find an open police station in rural Creuse. But we were in luck. The station was manned. It was market day in Boussac, so perhaps a police presence is required on that day since it’s by far the busiest for our tiny local town. Who knows when violence might erupt around the stroopwafel stall or the men’s gloves and hats stall? The young officer dismissed my concerns about my apparently defunct licence with a dismissive “pas grave” i.e. it’s not important. Since it showed no expiry date for car driving then I was fine. The expiry date on the front related to the expiry date for those categories I didn’t use, even though there was five-day discrepancy between them. He said I didn’t even need to apply for a new licence, but since I’ve already done so I’ll wait and see what happens there. The main thing is that I can legally drive my car.

At least we know we don’t need to worry when Chris faces the same issue next year. His licence is even more confusing than mine, with three different expiry dates on it, but that’s another story…