Biking in France – Liberté, égalité, bureaucratié



While preparing for a biking trip to France I came across a lot of bumph specifying equipment I must carry. Two breathalysers, a high visibility jacket, spare light bulbs, reflective stickers on my crash helmet and 6 sides of A4 with detailed instructions entitled “STOP – READ THIS FIRST” for the headlight modification! It all seems very excessive and bureaucratic.

Perhaps this indicates a lack of trust between the French state and the people. In the UK the law states that you can’t drive with too much alcohol in your blood. How you achieve this is your problem. You may abstain completely from drink, you might engage in moderation or you might practice “24 hours between bottle and throttle”. The British government doesn’t care; it only cares that you don’t drink and drive.

The French though! In France you can’t drive with too much alcohol in your blood but the French government don’t trust you to figure out how to achieve this. So they have tried to plan out what you will do in relation to drink driving and decided that you need, not one, but two breathalysers! Maybe they think that if you test yourself and fail then you’ll sit there by your bike for an hour or two and need to test yourself again. Or maybe they think that if you are under the limit then you’ll carry on drinking and need to retest later on. Or maybe they are so ludicrously bureaucratic that they think that, were you to only carry one breathalyser, then you would test yourself, find that you are under the limit and drive away but then be breaking the law as you would no longer be carrying a breathalyser!

It all seems very draconian, pointless and a bit of a make work scheme. I’ve probably spent around £50 on clutter and £4 of that just for a set of helmet stickers which, by rights, are so rubbish that they should be given away with a box of cornflakes.

It’s a bit of cliché that the difference between Common Law which predominates in the British Commonwealth and Civil Law which predominates in Europe is that Common Law allows an individual the freedom to do anything unless it is specifically proscribed whereas Civil Law codifies specific freedoms and so an individual’s actions are limited to what the state allows. I don’t know how true this is but I have experience of business in the UK and France and it does seem true that the British focus on ensuring that the rules are abided by whereas the French insist on a detailed process.

I am reminded of a quotation by Sir William Harcourt which has confirms me as a liberal and informed my attitude to Europe. It is this: “Liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right. The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes, a Liberal Government tries, so far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do what he wishes. It has been the function of the Liberal Party consistently to maintain the doctrine of individual liberty. It is because they have done so that England is the country where people can do more what they please than in any country in the world”.