The essence of France can be seen at the first roundabout
Monday 21 May 2007
An important anniversary has passed almost unnoticed. The world's first roundabout is 100 years old.
And not just any old roundabout but the maman et papa of all roundabouts; the Etoile, the terrifying, invigorating, eight lane, automobile hot tub which surrounds the Arc de Triomphe.
Until the spring of 1907, traffic - mostly horse-drawn - was allowed to go around the Etoile in any direction that it fancied. That must have been fun.
Just over a century ago, 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. Some obstinate American roadway historians insist that a William Phelps Eno - the father of the stop sign and the one-way street - had already invented the "gyratory traffic scheme" a year or so earlier. But the American roundabout rules were not quite as clear as they were at the Etoile. I propose to ignore Mr Eno's claim.
Legends abound about the Etoile. It is said that an American tourist once found himself sucked into the innermost lane and could not force his way out. He drove in circles until he ran out of petrol.
My home lies just to the west of the Arc de Triomphe, my children's schools just to the south and my office just to the east. In the past 10 years, I must have piloted over 5,000 missions through the Etoile.
Each time I approach, I feel my knuckles clench on the steering wheel, as if I were in a wartime bomber approaching the French coast. Its moods are never predictable. The rules, though clear, are never obeyed by everyone.
Some, like me, charge into the centre, trusting the other traffic to stop, as it is supposed to. I then try to twist and turn my way out.
Some rush blindly in and then rush blindly out again. Others, like my neighbour Bénedicte, wander around the outside, blocking all the exit and entrance lanes in turn. Challenged on her technique, she says: "Rules? You have to be an imbecile to obey the rules." I have to admit, however, that in a decade of Etoile driving, I have never seen an accident. Somehow, just enough people obey the rules to allow the rest to break them.
The Etoile is a microcosm of France: a blend of brute individualism and the Republican values of mutual respect and solidarity. It may be baffling, or terrifying, to outsiders; it may not work perfectly; but it works.
President Nicolas Sarkozy evidently intends not just to reform the French economy but to mess with the mind of France. He wants the French to absorb such Anglo-Saxon attitudes as the "can-do" spirit , teamwork, optimism, individual enterprise and discipline.
Whether this can work is open to question. M. Sarkozy should go up to the Etoile for an hour or two and watch the traffic.
The French weekly magazine Courrier International is selling in London this week for the first time. Like Britain'sThe Week, Courrier International is a compendium of the best articles from other publications. In Courrier's case, the articles are translated from the foreign press.
This week's edition (£2.50 in London) makes the startling declaration - for a French publication - that London will be the capital of the 21st century. This is backed by eight pages of laudatory articles on London translated into French from American, Swedish, Arabic and British papers - including The Independent.
Fact one: A searing heatwave in August 2003 is estimated to have killed - or hastened the deaths - of 20,000 old people.
Fact two: Nicolas Sarkozy lost the election among voters aged 18 to 59. He owed his victory to a landslide among the over 60s.
Scribbled message on the Paris Metro: "Since 60 per cent of old farts voted Sarko, roll on the next heatwave."
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