Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, does not lack courage.
Fresh from her 1.7 percent score in the presidential election, she plans to destroy a Parisian icon: the 12-lane traffic jacuzzi which surrounds the Arc de Triomphe.
Mayor Hidalgo is already under fire for her other assaults on the Parisian streetscape. Personally, I have no problem with the proliferation of cycle lanes. I do object to the bizarre, new forms of street furniture which have replaced some traditional benches and street-lights.
But now the mayor has finally gone too far. The traffic free-for-all at the Etoile at the top of the Champs Elysées is as emblematic of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the triumphal arch which stands in the centre of this maman et papa of all roundabouts.
Ms Hidalgo plans to reduce the space for traffic by one third, reducing the number of theoretical lanes from 12 to eight. The work is to begin almost immediately as part of a bigger plans to make the Champs Elysées smarter and greener before the Paris Olympics in 2024.
That is all very well but she is destroying a symbol of Parisian exceptionalism, a microcosm of France, an automotive wonder of the world.
How on earth do you drive around a twelve-lane roundabout where there seem to be no rules?
The answer is that there are very strict rules and that just enough people obey them to allow the rest to do as they please. The Etoile is a mini-France: a blend of brute individualism with the Republican values of mutual respect and solidarity.
In the last 24 years I must have driven around the Etoile at least 5,000 times. Each time I approach, I feel my knuckles clench on the steering wheel, as if I were in a bomber approaching its target zone. I have never had an accident. I have only once seen an accident.
In theory, priority is always from the right. Some people, like me, charge into the centre, trusting that the other traffic will give way as it is supposed to. I then try to twist and turn my way out.
Others rush blindly in and then rush blindly out again.
A few, like my ex-neighbour Bénedicte, wander around the outside, blocking all the exit and entrance lanes in turn. Challenged on her anti-social technique, she said: “Rules? You have to be an imbecile to obey the rules.”
Reducing the Etoile to eight lanes, when there are 12 avenues radiating from it, sounds to me like a blue-print for disaster. The strange blend of rules and rule-breaking, conventions and moods which govern the place will be catastrophically disturbed.
The Etoile has some claim to be the world’s first roundabout (other candidates exist). Until 1907, the traffic, mostly horse-drawn was allowed to go around in any direction that it fancied. That must have been fun.
Eugène Hénard, the architect for the City of Paris, ordered that traffic should go around anti-clockwise and make way for vehicles entering from the right. And so it has been ever since.
Until the 1970s, other roundabouts – “rond-points” or “carrefour giratoires” (circular cross-roads) – were rare in France. Half a century ago, it was decided that too many people were killing themselves on ordinary cross-roads because they ignored or got confused by the rule awarding priority to the right.
Since then France has undertaken a monumental programme of roundabout building. The country now has at least 30,000 roundabouts and some people insist 40,000. Even accepting the lower figure, France is reckoned to have half of all the roundabouts in the world (three times as many as the UK).
Another 500 roundabouts are built in France each year. Every small town wants at least one. They have lyrical names like Rond Point des Lilas. They are sometimes decorated with sculptures. They often have flower-beds. During the Gilets Jaunes movement in 2018 and 2019, they became the multiple epicentre of social rebellion.
But these are not charge-on and hope-for-the-best roundabouts like the Etoile. You have tamely to give way to the traffic already on the rond-point. They are, I fear, polite and predictable and unFrench. They are almost British. (It was in fact Britain which invented that kind of roundabout in the 1920s.)
I would beg Anne Hidalgo to reconsider her decision to truncate the Etoile. She has charged into this decision without giving a thought to the priority that should be accorded to French or Parisian history and tradition. She might as well have decided to remove the top storey from the Eiffel Tower.
An eight-lane Etoile would no-longer be a shining star of French exceptionalism. It would be a dwarf star, even a black hole.