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SOME MONTHS ago (filled with shame, I didn't rant about it at the time but nursed my wounded amour propre privately in my bosom. I've got over it now, thank you for enquiring) an official-looking letter arrived for Josephine, postmarked R

SOME MONTHS ago (filled with shame, I didn't rant about it at the time but nursed my wounded amour propre privately in my bosom. I've got over it now, thank you for enquiring) an official-looking letter arrived for Josephine, postmarked Rennes in Brittany.
No lover of official-looking letters, she opened it with a sniffy distaste that turned to spluttering disgust when she realised it was a speeding fine. It quoted the car registration, the date some weeks before, the time and place, the speed recorded less the margin of tolerance (wonderful, merci) and the amount of the fine: 45 euros, about £30, hotted up to 90 euros if not paid within a certrain time.

She checked her diary. On the day in question she'd been nowhere near the scene of crime, a southern suburb of Montpellier called Lattes. It can't have been me, she said. Those speed cameras, they're mostly defective. Everyone knows that. They'd tell you anything and expect you to take it as gospel. Why, only the other day they picked up someone doing 160 along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. When they traced the registration it turned out that it belonged to an elderly farmer in Brittany. Or rather to his tractor. It just shows. Look, it says here I was making marmalade. That takes time. And stewing rhubarb in the afternoon. And I washed the kitchen floor. How could I possibly have been in Lattes? They can stick their fine . . .

Here, wait a sec, what's this? she said a moment or two later, looking at an ominous entry further down the page:  C to collect A*** at Montpellier airport . . .

I blushed the blush of the far from innocent. It all came back. On that day I had indeed taken Josephine's car - with her blessing - to the airport at Montpellier to meet a returning friend. The route took me along the motorway, the autoroute romantically entitled La Languedocienne (motorways are feminine in France, did you know?) because it traverses the southern Languedoc from Avignon to Narbonne, but which the French refer to more prosaically as the A9 or simply le péage, the toll road. The normal motorway speed limit of 130 kilometres per hour drops to 110 once you enter the outskirts of Montpellier. I must have failed to register this. Dolt. Idiot. When the camera flashed Josephine's car it was recorded as doing 120, the fine notice said. They allowed me a buckshee 6kph, so I was clobbered for 114kph. A fair cop. No use grumbling. No use threatening to meet other airport arrivals by tractor. 45 euros and two points off my permis de conduire, my driving licence, leaving ten of the original twelve.

The camera picked up Josephine's registration, of course, which is how the fine came to her. There was a space on the form for the guilty party, if it wasn't the registered owner, to fess up, in due course I forked out and the gendarmerie cash registers rang out whatever the French is for kerr-ching!

* * *

IF I'D been less cavalier about speed restrictions and more attentive to the speedometer I might have noticed that well before automatic speed cameras there's always a warning sign. It's a large reflective white panel with the silhouette of a car and a motorbike within a semicircle of dashes, I suppose suggestive of radar beams, with the wording pour votre sécurité (for your safety) above and contrôle automatique (go on, guess) below. So the authorities actually tell you when there's a speed camera coming up in plenty of time for you to slow down. No question of traps, no excuse for not knowing. But still the fines come rolling in. I suppose this tells you something about French drivers, if only that the spread of intelligence is no more weighted at the top than in any other nation.

Speeding from . . .erm, as you were, maybe that's not quite the right term, let's start again: Travelling just within the maximum speed limits from Calais to the Deep South the other day it was revealing to note which cars overtook us. One or two French, certainly, but by and large it really does seem that a determined government insistence on imposing speed limits has penetrated the French consciousness. No, the great majority of culprits are foreigners. A rough order of turpitude based solely on one 10-hour journey gives the following, those considering themselves least shackled by French speed limits first:

  1. Belgians
  2. Swiss
  3. Spanish  
  4. Germans
  5. Italians
  6. Brits
  7. Lithuanians
  8. Romanians

I suppose there's something to be said for seeing Belgium at the top of the league - a country has to believe in its own excellence at something, after all - but in fact all these speed merchants are on to a good thing, if that's what you can call it, because French automatic speed cameras can only cope with French number plates. But their days are numbered: there's already a harmonisation scheme between the French and German authorities ready to put into action in 2007, and further pan-European schemes are being honed and buffed to make sure no number plate format escapes the ever-open eye.

So if you're got a GB number plate and you're contemplating breaking the record, and your neck into the bargain, for the Calais to Monte Carlo run, now's the time to do it. Maybe that's what a couple of young hopefuls in a UK-registered Ferrari were trying to do the other day when they were picked up doing something like 200mph just south of Béthune. Instant confiscation of car and driving licences. Young hopefuls instructed to walk back to Calais. C'est pas si loin que ça, it's not as far as all that. Of course, this was a mobile patrol, manned by les flics, the police. They always salute before they dish out the hard words. It's the human equivalent of those warning signs. The French are really quite civilised sometimes.