There are around 67,000 roundabouts in France today, with hundreds more installed across the country every year.
It has become the custom for ronds-points (or giratoires) to be decorated in some way – whether it be a monument, sculpture, floral design, or homage to a town’s history.
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Up to €1million for a large roundabout
Of course, their primary function remains a very practical one: encouraging drivers to slow down, creating a more natural flow of traffic, making it easier to turn around, and helping to prevent road accidents.
Marion Ailloud and Nicolas Furmanek, from the Centre d’études et d’expertise sur les risques, l’environnement, la mobilité et l’aménagement (Cerema), say: “There are between 30% and 70% fewer accidents involving injuries, depending on the type of junction and user.
“This reduction affects all users (cars, pedestrians, cyclists, heavy goods vehicles, etc).”
Cerema is responsible for assisting road projects with safety assessments, both before and after they have been built.
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In terms of roundabouts specifically, it also provides guidance for local authorities and developers on their size and how this might affect different road users.
The pair say that the cost of installing roundabouts – a contentious issue in recent years – varies hugely.
“It is difficult to give a price because roundabouts differ greatly in size and location. Smaller ones can cost tens of thousands of euros, but larger ones can cost up to a million.”
Extra money for landscaping and more for artwork
To help make a roundabout more visually pleasing, some benefit from an extra subsidy.
“This is not to be confused with the 1% paysage, which finances works of art for national infrastructure projects such as new motorways, nor the specific development of a roundabout where approximately 30% of the cost of the work is devoted to landscaping, planting and even decoration,” the pair said.
The building of roundabouts has boomed since the 1980s but artworks used to embellish them have sometimes attracted the ire of locals, who believe the money could be better spent elsewhere.
Conspicuous centrepieces include a collection of gigantic corks celebrating the wine region of the Côtes du Rhône, an enormous, halved kiwi on the Peyrehorade-Bayonne road in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, and a 4.5m-tall miner’s lamp in Courcelles-lès-Lens, a former mining town in Pas-de-Calais.
Most authorities reducing roundabout costs
Ms Ailloud and Mr Furmanek, however, say local authorities have moved away from elaborate artworks in recent years.
“Although some roundabouts have been highly decorated to mark a town’s ‘entrance’, it seems that the current concerns of local authorities for the centre of their roundabouts relate to vegetation, biodiversity and more ‘frugal’ facilities (to reduce maintenance costs).
“In terms of roundabout design (not just the central part), local authorities are experimenting with ways to allow safer movement of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.”
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Nevertheless, the issue of whether roundabouts are a waste of taxpayers’ money has not gone away.
Worst roundabout art in France is novelist’s face
The Contribuables associés, which exposes where public expenditure goes, launched a competition in 2017 to find the worst roundabout in France.
Jean-Baptiste Leon, its director of publications, said: “Many of our members have pointed out to us over the years the wastefulness of these structures, which is why we launched this contest – to highlight our fight against unnecessary public spending.
“Contribuables associés is not passing judgement on the necessity of traffic circles, especially in terms of road safety, but on the cost of their facilities, which is often superfluous.”
The vote closed in January 2018, with a third of the 12,538 internet users who took part agreeing that ‘Le masque d’André Malraux’ in Pontarlier (Doubs) was a worthy winner.
The towering installation – depicting the French novelist’s face – cost €15,000.
The competition also exposed the costs of other roundabout artworks.
Artists now specialise in roundabout art
The ‘Arbre en ciel de Cugnaux’ in Haute-Garonne, for example, was €68,600, but even more eye-watering was an enormous sundial that totalled €298,000.
Weighing 35 tons, the ‘Cadran solaire de Perpignan’ measured 30 metres long and 22 metres high. Contribuables associés suggested a helicopter would be needed to read the time.
Originally installed in 2014, it has since been removed after being damaged during a gilets jaunes rally in 2019.
For all the public ridicule, it seems there is still a healthy appetite for roundabout art.
Some installations have become the subject of blogs and books, and press photographer Ivan Guilbert is now producing an exhibition inspired by the topic.
Some artists have even forged a career out of roundabout art.
Jean-Luc Plé, for example, has created more than 40 sculptures for roundabouts in France at the request of various local municipalities. He has been dubbed the ‘Rodin of rond-points’.
For fellow artist Philippe Gigot, who was commissioned in 2014 to make a sculpture for the round-about at the entrance of Lauzerte in Tarn-et-Garonne, these installations serve a vital purpose.
“I think it is important: art is a way of communication. It is a pretext to speak about what you want,” he said.
His own creation was inspired by the village’s location on the Santiago de Compostela route – a figurative depiction of a pilgrim – and he worked with a group of local schoolchildren on the project.
“So the sculpture is not my sculpture – it is the sculpture of all the people of Lauzerte.”
Arc de Triomphe gets seal of approval
Mr Leon, of Contribuables associés, says he appreciates many people like these sorts of public artwork.
However, the group reminds readers that roundabouts have cost taxpayers at least €30billion in the last 40 years.
Is there one roundabout that Mr Leon actually likes?
“The rond-point of the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, on the Champs-Elysées,” he concedes.
Installed in 1907 under the management of French architect and urban planner Eugène Hénard (1849-1923), it was the first roundabout in France and is still one of the busiest.
Read more: Frenchman pioneered concept of roundabouts
Pride of place in its centre is one of the most visited installations in all of France – the Arc de Triomphe.
This ultimate roundabout artwork delights some 1.5 million tourists every year.
In 2021, in just three weeks, it pulled in an estimated six million to see it ‘wrapped’ in fabric as a posthumous tribute to artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
No quibbles about cost in this instance, though – the €14million bill was met by the sale of original Christo artworks.
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