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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: The Arc de Triomphe roundabout is an emblem of Paris, so don’t destroy it

The famous Arc de Triomphe roundabout is "a symbol of Parisian exceptionalism, a microcosm of France, an automotive wonder of the world", says John Lichfield. So why does the mayor want to destroy it?

OPINION: The Arc de Triomphe roundabout is an emblem of Paris, so don't destroy it
An aerial picture taken aboard an helicopter on July 20, 2010 shows a view of the Arc de triomphe in Paris. AFP PHOTO BORIS HORVAT (Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP)

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.

READ ALSO: How Paris plans to transform the Champs-Elysées

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.

An aerial view taken taken on July 11, 2019 shows the Arch of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe) in Paris. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

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.

Member comments

  1. I lived in Paris for w and a half years in the late 80s and never once dared venture onto
    the Etoile. Always chickened out and used the rat run!

    I couldn’t escape the périphérique though! I honestly used to close my eyes and pray that other road users would give me the priorité a droite which was my right on entering said ring road!

  2. I, for one, am delighted by Ms. Hidalgo’s efforts to reduce (I would eliminate entirely) the use of private automobiles in Paris. If you are not aware of it, we have a climate crisis. If you are not aware of it, the automobile traffic in Paris not only contributes to “global warming” but is a major source of air pollution in this beautiful city. Even though I lived most of my life in the “car capital of the world” (California), I would love to see cities become “auto-free”. We need delivery trucks, and we need taxis. But private automobiles are a relic of the last century. Time to see them gone! Thank you Ms.
    Hidalgo !

  3. Did John Lichfield experience the Arc De Triomphe when it was wrapped by the Christos? This is how it should be permanently in the future – completely pedestrianised, not reduced to 8 lanes. The time for having fun driving around a chaotic rond-point is over. Did John Lichfield read about the nearly 50 degree heat in India and Pakistan last week? Cars in cities on a burning planet are over. Pedestrianise Paris!

  4. Complete rubbish and basically sour grapes. Cities evolve and in our age of climate change this symbolic ‘automotive wonder’ of pollution needs to adapt. Besides, if priority should be accorded to Parisian history and tradition then there would still be horse-drawn carriages going around it!
    Eight lanes is still huge and any encouragement for the incredibly selfish and rude French drivers to proceed politely is more than welcome. I rather suspect that the author will be even slightly embarrassed when he sees how nice the re-imagining looks!

  5. Complete rubbish and basically sour grapes. Cities evolve and in our age of climate change this symbolic ‘automotive wonder’ of pollution needs to adapt. Besides, if priority should be accorded to Parisian history and tradition then there would still be horse-drawn carriages going around it!
    Eight lanes is still huge and any encouragement for the incredibly rude and selfish French drivers to proceed politely is more then welcome. I rather suspect that the author will be even slightly embarrassed when he sees how nice the re-imagining looks.

  6. In 1959, my father took me to the Etoile early on a Sunday morning. He gave me instructions on the rules of the road and navigation and turned the wheel over to me. For the next four hours, I drove round and round, signaling in and out of the lanes, as the traffic built up. I was very excited, for it was the first time he had let me drive his ’58 220SE. I was 11, but big for my age.

  7. Bonjour,
    How right you are ! The maelstrom that is the aptly named traffic jacuzzi of Paris is indeed emblematic of our great capital. Once engaged in its whirl, all you have to do is keep up to speed, and not be intimidated by it. Such a kill-joy shame if it were to be « improved » !
    Cordialement
    Neej

  8. Sour grapes. Cities evolve and in our age of climate change this symbolic ‘automotive wonder’ of pollution needs to adapt. Besides, if priority should be accorded to ‘Parisian history and tradition’ then there would still be horse-drawn carriages going around it!
    Eight lanes is still huge and any encouragement for the incredibly rude and selfish French drivers to proceed politely is more then welcome. I rather suspect that the author will be even slightly embarrassed when he sees how nice the re-imagining looks!

  9. Sour grapes. Cities evolve and in our age of climate change this symbolic ‘automotive wonder’ of pollution needs to adapt. Besides, if priority should be accorded to Parisian history and tradition then there would still be horse-drawn carriages going around it!
    Eight lanes is still huge and any encouragement for the incredibly rude and selfish French drivers to proceed politely is more then welcome. I rather suspect that the author will be even slightly embarrassed when he sees how nice the re-imagining looks!

  10. I’m in favor of reducing vehicular traffic, in any city. Reducing the number of lanes doesn’t seem like the solution, but rather the way to make traffic more intense. Maybe a traffic engineer could comment on this.

  11. Totally agree. I love the Etoile, and have always said that you could drive around it backwards and nobody would notice.

  12. I didn’t know I was supposed to be nervous when I drove around there, the same as when I skied down the Swiss Wall in the Portes du Soleil. I suspect in both cases pre-knowledge is what makes it worrisome, not the actual experience.

  13. So the Etoile is “a blend of brute individualism with the Republican values of mutual respect and solidarity.” Why stop there? Why not tout it as the exemplar of the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism? Or of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy? At the end, though, it’s certainly not the reason UNESCO chose to name it a World Heritage Site.

    But as to the likely effects of the Mayor’s proposals: reducing the number of “lanes” — there are no real lanes in the Etoile — to eight while reducing the number of vehicles entering the Etoile would do a better job of maintaining the character of the Etoile and its challenges than maintaining its current size while reducing traffic density. Reducing the flow of traffic into the roundabout will also reduce the turbulence within it. I write as both a retired transportation planner and also as someone whose experienced similarly sized and designed roundabouts in Kuwait.

    I echo others who support reducing private vehicle use in Paris and favoring walking, bicycling and transit to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

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STRIKES

French protest pension reform again as unions threaten to step up action

Protesters once again took to the streets in towns and cities across France on Tuesday to call for the government to scrap its proposed pension reform as fresh strikes brought widespread disruption on transport.

French protest pension reform again as unions threaten to step up action

The third day of union-backed demonstrations since January 19th was set to test momentum for the protest movement which has vowed to block Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age.

The head of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned that more “numerous, massive and rolling” strikes were coming if the government did not drop the plan.

“If the government keeps on refusing to listen then of course things will have to be ratcheted up,” he said, as the demonstration in Paris got underway.

French leftist party La France Insoumise (LFI) leader Jean-Luc Melenchon (C) addresses media ahead of the start of the demonstrations on the third day of nationwide rallies against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

Macron put raising the retirement age and encouraging the French to work more at the heart of his re-election campaign last year, but polls estimate that two-thirds of people are against the changes.

Lawmakers began debating the reform, which would see the age for a full pension raised from 62 to 64 and the mandatory number of years of work extended for a full pension, during a stormy session in parliament on Monday.

Mobilisations across the country

Last week’s demonstrations brought out 1.3 million people across the country while a first round on January 19 drew 1.1 million protesters, according to the police.

A security source told AFP that between 900,000 and 1.1 million people were expected on Tuesday.

French 24-hour news channel BFMTV reported that more than 200 rallies against the pension reform had been organised across the country on Tuesday.

Protesters gather at Place de l’Opera prior to the start of the demonstration (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

The crowds so far have been the largest anti-government protests since 2010, during pension reform by right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

There were tensions in the western city of Nantes where protesters clashed with security forces who used tear gas pellets, an AFP photographer said.

Protesters in Nantes in western France shrouded in teargas face off with law enforcement during a demonstration on the third day of nationwide rallies against pension reform (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

In Paris, French daily Le Parisien reported that within an hour of the march beginning, more than 2,200 people had already been subject to police checks.

Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron had to take account of the mobilisation on the streets.

“Unless he has become completely authoritarian, you need to be reasonable in a democracy,” he said, accusing Macron of trying to start his five-year term with a “show of force”.

The impacts of strike action 

Trains and the Paris metro again faced “severe disruptions”, while cancellations at Orly airport south of the capital were expected to total one in five.

The overall level of disruption, including in schools, was estimated to be lower than on the previous two days of action.

According to Franceinfo, 25 percent of French national rail workers walked out on Tuesday, in contrast to 36 percent during the previous day of action on January 31st. As for teachers, the French ministry of education estimated to Franceinfo that about 14.17 teachers were out on strike, compared to 25.92 percent on January 31st (based on parts of the country not currently on holiday). 

Nevertheless, around half of long-distance trains were running, the state railway company said.

Railway workers hold a banner as they protest against pension reform a general assembly of railway workers on the third day of nationwide rallies organised since the start of the year, against a deeply unpopul at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

Another day of action is planned by unions on Saturday although with train unions calling for protests rather than strikes, disruption may be less severe. 

“It’s ok, it’s manageable,” Sylvain Magnan, a 23-year-old told AFP at the main station in the city of Marseille on the Mediterranean. “I just took a later train.”

Two unions representing rail workers, the CGT and Sud-Rail had also threatened renewable strike action from mid-February onwards. 

“I don’t feel that the guys are ready to go on a renewable strike at the moment”, train driver and member of the CGT chapter representing rail workers, CGT-Cheminots, Thierry Milbeo, told Le Parisien, referencing his fellow rail workers.

As for oil refineries, approximately one in two TotalEnergies workers were out on strike during the third round of walkouts, the company said, but stocks at petrol stations are sufficiently high to handle any temporary pause in deliveries.

The situation in French parliament

Macron’s proposals would bring France closer into line with its European neighbours, most of which have retirement ages of 65 or higher.

But the government has struggled to defend the overhaul as necessary or fair, given that the system is currently in balance and that low-skilled workers are said by many economists to bear the brunt of the changes.

“It’s reform or bankruptcy,” Public Accounts Minister Gabriel Attal said in parliament on Monday, leading to criticism from opponents that he was exaggerating.

French Junior Minister for Public Accounts Gabriel Attal delivers a speech during the debate regarding the draft law on pension system reform at the National Assembly in Paris, on February 6, 2023. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Forecasts from the independent Pensions Advisory Council show the pensions system in deficit on average over the next 25 years.

The changes would lead to annual savings of around €18 billion by 2030 — mostly from pushing people to work for longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.

France’s spending on pensions is the third highest among industrialised countries relative to the size of its economy. The country is number one in terms of overall public spending, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In parliament, the government will need to rely on the right-wing Republicans opposition party to pass the draft legislation, without having to resort to controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a vote.

Macron’s allies are in a minority in the hung National Assembly after elections in June.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Sunday offered a key concession, saying people who started work aged 20 or 21 would be allowed to leave work a year earlier.

Republicans’ head Eric Ciotti has promised his backing, in theory giving the government the numbers it needs to pass the legislation.

But the left-wing opposition group and the far-right nationalist and Eurosceptic party of Marine Le Pen are staunchly opposed and have filed thousands of amendments.

Speaking in parliament on Monday, Le Pen said the government’s reform was “unfair” and “dictated by your desire to please the European Commission.”

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