Summer vacation is in full swing on the Côte d'Azur, with the warm sunny days, music-filled nights, and stupid tourists who don't know how to drive! And we locals can tell who isn't from around here by looking at the license plates. Or at least we used to be able to tell.
The easy ones to spot are the cars that aren't from France. Each European country has its own format for the combination of numbers and letters, as well as size, shape and color of the plates. After a short while, I learned to identify a car from Italy or Luxembourg at just a glance, although the first time I saw a car from Andorra or Ukraine the location wasn't as obvious.
It used to be easy to determine where a French car was registered with the old numbering system. The pattern used to be NNN AAA XX, where XX was the number code was the one of the départment where the car was registered. For example, my car's plate was 343 BLC 06 -- 06 for Alpes Maritimes. 83 is for our neighbors to the west (Var), and 75/92/93/94 are for those annoying Parisians! (You can check here for a complete list.)
Then in 2009, the format changed to AA NNN AA with no more reference to the départment. But wait! Why are we changing, and how can we know which cars to hate on the road? Well, the new format requires you to have a sticker on the plate that references a départment, although it has nothing to do with where the car is registered, and it does not make up part of the registration number, but it is still mandatory. (If that doesn't make sense, then I need to remind you about the mistake of trying to use logic in France!) So, there is still some chance that the car with the 75 sticker is from Paris.
The highway traffic is predictably bad on four weekends: the first weekend in July, the last weekend in July, the first weekend in August and the last weekend in August. There is a classification system for the traffic called Bison Futé (literally "crafty bison") where a color is assigned to the level of " badness"of the traffic, from green (smooth sailing) to black (you're not going anywhere soon). Black is mainly reserved for the changeover weekend(s) where the juilletistes come home from their vacations and the aoûtiens leave on theirs.
But France is great because there aren't many other countries where you can start your vacation by shouting the first few words of the national anthem: "Allons enfants!" It wouldn't sound the same to hear an American parent ask, "O say can you see where I put the GPS?"