How I got a driver's license in the U.S. as a teenager
All the 11th-grade students in my public high school took a mandatory driver's education class for a semester. The coach of the football team taught the class. The first two classes were just watching movies about terrible real-life accidents where people didn't wear their seat belts. The movies showed policemen knocking on the front doors of houses to tell parents that their teenagers had died in an accident.
Then Coach would take us driving in his special driver's ed car with brakes on the passenger's side. He called everyone "Tiger" and taught us all some rules that I still remember gratefully:
--always make sure the other guy sees you; don't be afraid to honk
--look far ahead down the road
I took a driver's test that consisted of a written test, an eye exam, and a driving test. The written test included-- I am not kidding-- the exam question:
"You turn on your headlights at night because
a) you see better
b) bugs will smear the windshield."
The eye exam consisted of standing in line behind a row of other people who all loudly read the same letters off an eye chart. You could have been blind and passed that test.
The driver's exam was driving up a road behind the driver's license bureau, which had no other traffic, then parking the car (not parallel, just driving into a slot and backing out), and driving back down again.
The whole thing was free and I got my license for the price of the photo.
I admit that driving is a lot easier in the U.S. than in France. Lanes are wide, spaces are vast, and the cities were mostly built after the car was invented, not centuries before.
How a French teenager gets a driver's license
First, find an auto-école that can take you. This can take up to a year. Some of them are only open an hour or so a day. They are usually booked far in advance, especially for the hours when teenagers are out of school.
Pay their fee. This costs hundreds of euros: up to 900 or so including the expense of the dossier they put together for you to go to the official driver's license bureau. En principe, you don't need an auto-école; but in real life, you won't get your permit without one. For example, you have to learn to drive in a car equipped with double controls! You also have to have a livret d'apprentissage validated by the police.
Study and learn the Code de la Route. This is the huge and diabolically difficult body of knowledge everyone in France has to master before getting a driver's license. It includes things like a sign with a bicycle facing left versus a sign with a bicycle facing right, and the dates of opening of mountain passes.
You have to take a written test that includes slides that deliberately made difficult to interpret -- did you see that red light through the luxuriant foliage? Which car is referred to as "in front of the car" that is facing away from you? (You can try the test yourself here. Warning, it talks!)
Once that ordeal is over, you have to take the real road test, which inspectors really don't like for you to pass. It is quite normal for an examiner to turn down a large majority of the people he or she tests. Be sure and turn your head ostentatiously to check all your mirrors every few seconds! Come to a complete stop at every stop sign; a rolling stop means you flunk.
The auto-école, of course, is delighted if you don't pass. They make you pay another large fee to take you back and "help" you pass the test again.
Once you have your driver's license, you can forget everything you learned and drive like everyone else in Paris: honk outside hospitals when the tourist in front of you doesn't move fast enough at the green light; speed up when someone signals a lane change, so they can't get in front of you; tailgate at high speeds, even if the left lane is empty or the car ahead of you is passing a truck (the French don't even have a word for tailgating, since everyone does it); wave your arms and roll your eyes at pedestrians who dare step out into a pedestrian crossing.
Your license is good for the rest of your life! (Mine, too. Don't think I'm not grateful.)