Deciphering Number Plates: France

Deciphering Number Plates: France

Curious what number plates grace the cars driving around the Eiffel Tower? Which country France used as a model for its current registration number system? And what Louis XVI has to do with all this? This article has all the answers!

13. 8. 2019 Models

In this episode, the Deciphering Number Plates series is visiting France, the country of madcap gendarmes from Saint-Tropez, fast taxi drivers from Marseille, and uncompromising police officers from Paris. And, of course, Fantômas’s flying car.


The first forerunner of modern number plates appeared in France way back in 1783, when King Louis XVI ordered Parisian coachmen to have a badge with their name and address on their carriages. This was part of an effort to reduce crime in the streets of Paris. Subsequently, in 1901, a nationwide number plate system was introduced in France. Until 1992, these iconic number plates featured white or silver lettering on a black background. This colour combination remains available today, but such plates are issued only for vintage cars, whose owners need to apply for them.

The current number plate system, in place since 2009, was inspired by Italy. It was introduced in an effort to simplify the entire system and make it more difficult to trade in stolen cars (in 2008, a year before the introduction of the new system, over 130,000 cars were stolen in France). Both the front and rear plates have black lettering on a white background (the rear plate had previously used black lettering on a yellow background). On the left, the traditional blue strip incorporates France’s international code (F) and the EU star. On the right, there is another blue strip, at the top of which is the emblem or coat of arms of one of the 18 French regions, with a numerical combination denoting one of the relevant region’s departments underneath. The best-known number is 75, as this is the code for Paris.

What is in a number plate?

Interestingly, it is up to the vehicle’s first owner to choose the region and department, and this is entirely unrelated to the place of registration. And, yes, this is a discretionary matter for the first owner alone, because cars keep to a single registration number from the time of their first sale until the time they are scrapped. This is intended to make dealing in stolen cars more difficult. There are also new security features on the vehicle registration document, which are designed to complicate the forging of such documentation.


Registration numbers are formatted as LL-DDD-LL (with L denoting a letter and D a digit). The system is sequential and common to all of France. This means that, unlike many other countries, the French system is completely independent of the departments and regions – which is also why drivers can choose between them at will. The very first registration number was AA-001-AA. Initially, numbers were added (up to AA-999-AA), then came the turn of the letters. The system can go all the way up ZZ-999-ZZ. One combination of letters is banned: SS (as it is taken as a reference to the Nazi SS). On top of that, the letters I, O, and U are not used at all because they could be confused with the numbers 1 and 0 and the letter V. Altogether, there are nearly 280 million different combinations. With average annual sales projected at 3 million vehicles, this system could last for up to 80 years.

There are few deviations from the standard French registration number system. Prior to 2009, for example, the police, military, and some government agencies had their own number formatting, but this was abolished when the current system was introduced. Likewise, any French drivers wanting a vanity plate will be left disappointed. Specific combinations of letters are now used only for temporary vehicle registrations (whose numbers begin WW) and on test and demonstration vehicles (in which case the numbers begin with the letter W, followed immediately by a set of digits). What has been preserved, however, is the format of diplomatic number plates, which feature white or orange lettering on a green background.

The FABIA is faring best


Answered by: Quentin Fouvez
PR & Press Manager, ŠKODA AUTO France

How would you sum up ŠKODA’s historical presence on your market?

We have clearly two different periods to consider, before joining Volkswagen Group – when our dealers represented brands from Eastern Europe and the USSR (not only ŠKODA) – and after. The brand is now well-established and well-known in France, and our current owner is our best ambassador. Since 2004, we have fostered a strong bond with the millions of people who have been following the Tour de France from the roadside or their armchairs.

What is ŠKODA’s current status on your market?

ŠKODA is becoming more important every year that passes. While we are one of the market’s challengers, targeting a 2% market share in a couple of years, the sales volumes are rising fast, with more than 32,000 cars sold last year (three times than 12 years ago).

Which models sell best on your market and how do they fare against competitors in their class?

The French love compact cars and the FABIA is undoubtedly our bestseller, with sales of around 10,000 last year. The OCTAVIA is our second pillar (around 7,000 sold in 2018). Both the SUPERB and the KODIAQ are doing very well on this rather chauvinist market (French brands enjoy a market share of more than 60%).

Is there anything specific to your market or your country?

We supply the national police – and, since last year, the gendarmerie – with OCTAVIAs and KODIAQs. These kind of customers are particularly hard to convince, so you can see how the mentality in France is evolving towards ŠKODA as we build trust in the reliability of the brand.