Stay safe in France
Crime-related emergencies can be reported by calling the toll-free number 17 or 112 (European emergency number). The law enforcement agencies are the National Police in urban areas and the National Gendarmerie in rural areas, although some towns and villages also have a municipal police (Police Municipale) for minor offences such as parking and traffic offences.
France generally has a low crime rate and is one of the safest countries in the world, but there are the usual mishaps in the big cities. Violent crimes against visitors are very rare, but pickpocketing and purse snatching do occur in tourist hotspots. If you take the usual precautions to avoid such crimes, you and your valuables will be safe.
The city centre and a few selected suburbs are generally safe at all times. In larger cities, especially Paris, there are a few areas that are best avoided. Some parts of the suburbs are frequented by youth gangs and drug dealers; however, they are almost always away from tourist areas and you should have no reason to visit them. Common sense applies: it is very easy to recognise abandoned areas.
The topic of crime in poor suburbs is very sensitive because it can easily have racist connotations, as many people associate it with young workers of North African origin. You should probably only express an opinion on the subject if you feel comfortable with the person you are talking to.
Although it is not obligatory for French citizens to carry an identity document, they usually do. Foreigners must carry an official identity document. Although random checks are not the norm, you may be asked for an ID in certain situations, e.g. if you cannot show a valid ticket when using public transport; if you do not have one, you will be taken to a police station for further checks. Even if you think that law enforcement officers do not have the right to check your identity (they can only do so under certain circumstances), it is not a good idea to get into a legal discussion with them; it is better to bear with them and show your identity document. Again, this is a sensitive issue because the police are often accused of targeting people based on their ethnicity (e.g. the offence of “selling face” = literally “dirty face crime”, but perhaps synonymous with the American “driving while black”).
Due to the international terrorist threat, the police, with the help of military units, often patrol monuments, the Paris Metro, train stations and airports. Depending on the status of the “Vigipirate” plan (anti-terrorist units), it is not uncommon to see armed patrols in these areas. The police presence should be useful for tourists as it also deters pickpockets and others. However, suspicious behaviour, public disturbances, etc. may attract police attention for the wrong reasons.
In France, failure to render assistance to “a person in danger” is in itself a criminal offence. This means that you can be charged if you fail to stop, if you witness a traffic accident, if you fail to report such an accident to the emergency services or if you ignore calls for help or urgent assistance. Penalties include a suspended prison sentence and fines. The law does not apply in situations where responding to a call for help could put your life or the lives of others in danger.
Transporting or consuming narcotics, from marijuana to hard drugs, is illegal regardless of the quantity. The penalty can be severe, especially if you are suspected of trafficking. Trains and cars from countries with a more lenient attitude (such as the Netherlands) are particularly affected. It is known that the police often stop entire carriages and thoroughly search each passenger and their luggage.
France has a liberal alcohol policy; there are usually no ID checks when buying alcohol (unless you look much younger than 18). However, causing trouble by public drunkenness is a criminal offence and can lead to a night in the cells of a police station. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offence, punishable by heavy fines and imprisonment.
A small note on etiquette: while it is customary to drink beer straight from the bottle at informal gatherings, the same is usually only done with wine by tramps.
Stay healthy in France
Tap water is drinkable except in rare cases, such as rural rest areas and railway carriage washrooms, where it is clearly labelled as non-potable. Drinking water is potable (but you do not like the taste and prefer bottled water).
Health care in France is of a very high standard.
Pharmacies are marked with a green cross, usually in flashing neon. They sell medicines, contraceptives and often cosmetics and similar products (although these can be very expensive). Medicines must be ordered without a prescription, even over-the-counter ones. The pharmacist is able to help you with the different medicines and can offer generic medicines.
As the brand names of medicines vary from country to country, even if the active ingredients remain the same, it is better if prescriptions use the international nomenclature in addition to the brand name. Prescription medicines, including oral contraceptives (also known as “the pill”), are only dispensed on the basis of a doctor’s prescription.
In addition, supermarkets sell condoms (preservatives) and often also lubricants, plasters, disinfectants and other smaller medical items. Condom dispensers are often found in the toilets of bars, etc.
Medical treatment can be provided by independent doctors, clinics and hospitals. Most general practitioners, specialists (e.g. gynaecologists) and dentists are independent; look for signs saying “Doctor” (GP stands for “General Practitioner”). The normal price for a consultation with a GP is 23 euros, although some doctors charge more (this is the total price and not a co-payment). Doctors can also make house calls, but these are more expensive.
European Union residents are covered by the French social security system, which generally reimburses or directly covers 70% of health costs (30% co-payment), although many doctors and surgeons charge extra. Other travellers are not covered and must pay full price even if they go to a public hospital; non-EU travellers must have travel insurance to cover medical costs.
Hospitals have an emergency room marked “Emergency”.
The following numbers are free of charge:
- 15 Medical emergencies
- 17 Law enforcement emergencies (e.g. to report a crime)
- 18 firefighters
- 112, the European standard emergency number.
The operators of these numbers can refer requests to other services if necessary (e.g. some medical emergencies can be handled by groups of firefighters).
The law prohibits smoking in all enclosed places open to the public (including train and underground carriages, station premises, workplaces, restaurants and cafés), except in areas specifically reserved for smokers, and such areas are few and far between. There was an exception for restaurants and cafés, but since 1 January 2008 the smoking ban also applies in these places. You risk a fine of 68 euros if you are caught smoking in these places.
In addition to the police, metro and train drivers can also enforce the anti-smoking law and fine you if you smoke in undesignated areas; if you have problems with a smoker on the train, you can contact the driver.
As hotels are not considered public places, some offer both smoking and non-smoking rooms.
Only persons over the age of 18 are allowed to buy tobacco products. Retailers may ask for photo identification. A pack of 20 cigarettes costs about €6.