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France

Health & safety

Before you go

Travel insurance

A travel-insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is a good idea. Some policies specifically exclude dangerous activities, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling, even trekking.

You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than you having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later ensure you keep all documentation. Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home. Paying for your airline ticket with a credit card often provides limited travel accident insurance. Ask your credit card company what it’s prepared to cover.

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Insurance

Unlimited third-party liability insurance is mandatory for all automobiles entering France, whether the owner accompanies the vehicle or not. As proof of insurance, the owner must present an international motor insurance card showing that the vehicle is insured while in France. Normally cars registered in other European countries can circulate freely in France; check with your local insurance company before you leave to make sure you are covered. If necessary a temporary insurance policy, valid for eight to 30 days, is available from the vehicle insurance department of the French Customs Office (La Douane; www.douane.gouv.fr) at the point of entry (border-crossing or seaport).

Third-party liability insurance is provided by car-rental companies, but things such as collision-damage waivers (CDW, or assurance tout risqué) vary greatly from company to company. When comparing rates, the most important thing to check is the franchise (excess/deductible), which is usually around €350 for a small car. Your credit card may cover CDW if you use it to pay for the car rental.

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Insurance

Citizens of the EU, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway or Liechtenstein receive free or reduced-cost state-provided health care cover with the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for medical treatment that becomes necessary while in France. The EHIC replaced the E111 in 2006. Each family member will need a separate card. In the UK, get application forms from post offices, or download them from the Department of Health website (www.dh.gov.uk), which has comprehensive information about the card’s coverage.

Citizens from other countries will need to check if there is a reciprocal arrangement for free medical care between their country and France. If you need health insurance, strongly consider a policy covering the worst possible scenario, such as an accident requiring an emergency flight home. Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.

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Prevention is the key to staying healthy. Planning before departure, particularly for pre-existing illnesses, will save trouble later. See your dentist before a long trip, carry a spare pair of contact lenses and glasses, and take your optical prescription. Bring medications in their original, clearly labelled, containers. A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names, is also helpful. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity.

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Recommended vaccinations

No vaccinations are required to travel to France. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all travellers should be covered for diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and polio, regardless of their destination.

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Dangers & annoyances

France is generally a safe place in which to live and travel, but crime has risen dramatically in the last few years. Property crime is a major problem but it is extremely unlikely that you will be physically assaulted while walking down the street. Always check your government’s travel advisory warnings.

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Theft

The problems you’re most likely to encounter are thefts (which can be aggressive), mainly pick-pocketing/bag snatching, especially in dense crowds and public places. A common ploy is for one person to distract you while another steals your wallet, camera or bag. Tired tourists on the train from the airport are a frequent target for thieves. Big cities – notably Paris, Marseille and Nice – have high crime levels. Particularly in Paris, museums are beset by organised gangs of seemingly innocuous children who are actually trained pickpockets.

There’s no need whatsoever to travel in fear. Taking a few simple precautions will minimise travellers’ chances of being ripped off.

Photocopy your passport, credit cards, plane tickets, driver’s licence, and other important documents – leave one copy at home and keep another one with you, separate from the originals.

A hidden money belt remains the safest way to carry money and valuable documents.

Take only what you need on busy sightseeing days: use the hotel/hostel safe.

On trains, keep bags as close as possible: the luggage racks (if in use) at the ends of the carriage are an easy target for thieves; in sleeping compartments, lock the door carefully at night.

Be especially vigilant at train stations, airports, fast-food outlets, cinemas, outdoor cafés and beaches and on public transport.

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Travelling by car

Car thefts and break-ins to parked cars are a frequent problem. Gangs cruise seemingly tranquil tourist areas for unattended vehicles. Foreign or out-of-town plates and rental stickers are a dead giveaway and will be targeted. Never, ever leave anything valuable (or otherwise) inside your car. Hiding your bags in the trunk is risky; in hatchbacks it is an open invitation to theft.

Aggressive theft from cars stopped at red lights is occasionally a problem, especially in the south (specifically in and around Marseille and sometimes Nice) at intersections and motorway exits. Thieves are usually on motorcycle. Your car should have autolocking doors (and air-conditioning).

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In transit

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

Blood clots may form in the legs during plane flights, chiefly because of prolonged immobility. The main symptom of DVT is swelling or pain of the foot, ankle or calf, usually but not always on just one side. When a blood clot travels to the lungs it may cause chest pain and breathing difficulties. Travellers with any of these symptoms should immediately seek medical attention.

To prevent the development of DVT on long flights walk about the cabin, contract the leg muscles while sitting, drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol and tobacco.

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Jet lag

To avoid jet lag (common when crossing more than five time zones) drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids and eat light meals. Upon arrival, get exposure to natural sunlight and readjust your schedule (for meals, sleep and so on) as soon as possible.

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While you're there

Children

Country France can be a great place for travel with children and, while big cities can be more difficult, lots of activities are on offer for les enfants, especially in Paris.

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Practicalities

France is reasonably child-friendly, although French parents don’t usually take their children to a restaurant any more sophisticated than a corner café. Chain restaurants like Hippopotamus and Bistro Romain are casual and serve food that most kids like; many restaurants have a children’s menu. Take drinks and snacks with you on sightseeing days if you want to avoid costly stops in cafés. Picnics are a great way to feed the troops and enjoy local produce.

In Paris, weekly entertainment magazine L’Officiel des Spectacles advertises babysitting services (gardes d’enfants). Elsewhere, tourist offices often have lists of babysitters or try www.bebe-annonce.com (in French).

Car-rental firms have children’s safety seats for hire at a nominal cost; book them in advance. The same goes for highchairs and cots (cribs) – standard in midrange restaurants and hotels. The choice of baby food, infant formula, soy and cow’s milk, nappies (diapers) and the like is as great in French supermarkets as it is back home, but the opening hours may be different. Run out of nappies on Saturday afternoon and you could be facing a long and messy weekend. (Should disaster strike note that in France, pharmacies – of which there is always one open for at least a few hours on a Sunday – also sell all the baby paraphernalia.)

Staying in a chambre d’hôte (B&B) which also does table d’hôte is fab for families; little kids can sweetly slumber upstairs while weary parents wine and dine in peace downstairs (don’t forget your baby monitor!). Fancier camping grounds have pools and facilities for kids.

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Women in France

Women were given the right to vote in 1945 by de Gaulle’s short-lived postwar government, but until 1964 a woman needed her husband’s permission to open a bank account or get a passport. Younger French women especially are quite outspoken and emancipated, but self-confidence has yet to translate into equality in the workplace, where women are often kept out of senior and management positions. The problem of sexual harassment (harcélement sexuel) in the workplace is finally beginning to be addressed with a new law imposing financial penalties on the offender. A great achievement in the last decade has been Parité, the law requiring political parties to fill 50% of their slates in all elections with female candidates.

Traditionally known for their natural chic, style and class, contemporary French women are bolder, more confident and sassier than ever. Take the Rykiel women: in the 1970s legendary Parisian knitwear designer Sonia Rykiel designed the skin-tight, boob-hugging sweater worn with no bra beneath. In 2006 daughter Nathalie came up with the ultimate stylish sex boutique. The shop – wedged between big-name labels in the chic Parisian quarter of St-Germain des Prés – screams design and is aimed squarely at women who know what they want.

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Safety precautions

Women tend to attract more unwanted attention than men, but need not walk around in fear; people are rarely assaulted on the street. Be aware of your surroundings and of situations that could be dangerous: empty streets, lonely beaches, dark corners of large train stations. Using metros late at night is generally OK, as stations are rarely deserted, but there are a few to avoid.

In some places women may have to deal with what might be called low-intensity sexual harassment: ‘playful’ comments and invitations that can become overbearing or aggressive, and which some women find threatening or offensive. Remain polite and keep your distance. Hearing a foreign accent may provoke further unwanted attention.

Be alert to vibes in cheap hotels, sometimes staffed by apparently unattached men who may pay far more attention to your comings and goings than you would like. Change hotels if you feel uncomfortable, or allude to the imminent arrival of your husband (whether you have one or not).

On overnight trains, you may prefer to ask (when reserving) if there’s a women’s compartment available. If your compartment companions are overly attentive, don’t hesitate to ask the conductor for a change of compartment. Second-class sleeping cars offer greater security than a couchette.

You can reach France’s national rape crisis hotline (0 800 059 595) toll-free from any telephone without using a phonecard. It’s run by a Paris women’s organisation, Viols Femmes Informations (www.cfcv.asso.fr in French; 9 villa d’Este, 13e, Paris; Porte d’Ivry).

The police (17) will take you to the hospital if you have been attacked or injured.

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Organisations

Women-only Association Maison des Femmes de Paris (01 43 43 41 13; maisondesfemmes.free.fr in French; 163 rue de Charenton, 12e, Paris; Reuilly Diderot) is the main meeting place for women of all ages and nationalities.

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