Road classifications

France has a comprehensive road network, consisting of over one million kilometres of routes of varying standards and importance.

Those roads that form part of the classified network are numbered according to thier status, whether they are trunk routes managed by the state, or local roads that are looked after by the local county or town councils.

Each tier is denoted by a different colour cartridge, the little number panel that appears on roadside signage and distance markers.

Autoroute

The French motorway network, of which most is tolled.

The first stretch of motorway, the A13 west of Paris, opened in 1946 after being delayed by World War II. The first tranche of motorways were quick to follow, but slowed down after 1974 due to a lack of money and political motivation.

This changed in 1995, when the decision was made to speed up the development of the motorway network by using private companies. The government would ultimately own the motorways, but the contracts to construct and manage them would be given to private companies.

Nowadays, there are around 11,000 km of autoroutes. New stretches of motorway are still opening, although the rate has significantly slowed due to legsilative, funding and also environmental reasons. Much of what does open is in the form of upgrades from existing roads.

Route Nationale

These form the strategic trunk road network, which today complements the motorway network by filling in the gaps.

Their origin harks back to 1811, when Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that a network of numbered strategic routes - routes impériales - be created in order to improve links across the Empire, as well as facilitating the movement of troops. This evolved into the routes royales in 1824, before morphing in 1830 into the system we know today.

During the 1930s, many secondary routes were added into the network to the point that there were 80,000 km of nationales across France. The growth of the motorways, however, saw this trend reverse with 50,000 km detrunked in 1972, and a further 20,000 km in 2006.

Many nationales have been converted into autoroutes after being dualled or upgraded.

Route Départementale

The network of secondary routes, criss-crossing their way across the whole of France in large numbers.

This classification was created in 1930,  at the same time as the growth in the trunk network, and was done through the merger of the previous systems of chemins vicinaux (local routes) and rural routes. Départementales range in quality, from narrow country lanes right the way through to motorway standard dual carriageways.

Even though they are not strategic routes, many of them still play an important role in linking large towns and cities, as well as providing alternative routes to the motorways. Many are former nationales, the usual tell-tale sign being that they have been given an unusually high number by the local département.

One thing to remember is that, because the number is allocated by the local council, the number doesn't always stay the same when you cross from one département into another. This is one of the reasons why the natives like to navigate by place name and not road number.

Route Métropolitaine

This is a relatively new classification, having only been introduced in 2012, and are only found in some of the Métropoles (city regions), the first of which being Nice-Côte d'Azur.

In most cases they are a simple redesignation of a route départementale due to the change in the authority's legal status, however some Métropoles have additionally taken control of the former route nationales within their area (for example, the N7 became M2007 within Nice). In the case of Lyon, they even took control of part of the now-former A6 and A7.

Route Communale

These are small local roads that the local commune (municipal council) have deemed to have some level of importance - normally this will be linking a small town with the main road network.

One oddity is one of France's most famous roads is a route communale.... the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris.

Euroroute

Some autoroutes and route nationales form part of the UN's international Trans-European Road Network. Where this the case, the road concerned is given an additional route number (or in some cases, two where thery run concurrently).

To show this status, supplementary green cartridges appear on direction and distance signage alongside the regular A- or N- road number, for example  A 13   E 05   E 46 .

Footnote.... 

One thing to note is that away from motorways, the French generally navigate by destination rather than route number. Road numbers appear on directions signs at a road junction, but not normally on approach signage.

When driving on ordinary roads, look for places on green backgrounds, which are the larger towns and cities signposted from further away. Local towns and villages are only signposted as you get closer to these locations.