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French roundabouts are also about revolution of a political kind

France has more roundabouts than any other country – we trace their history and how they have come to symbolise deep worries about French cultural identity

Aerial view of one of the Loire-Atlantique’s many roundabouts, in Chéméré Pic: Drone Altitude_shutterstock

Driving in Nantes can sometimes give the impression you are going around in circles, rather than getting anywhere fast.

This might be because the city has the most roundabouts (ronds-points) in France – an estimated 1,100, or one for every 298 inhabitants. Together, they make up a third of the Loire-Atlantique department’s total.

While Nantes might have a glut, roundabouts have mushroomed on every road and avenue of the territory since the 1960s.

So much so that France now has the dubious honour of being the country with the most roundabouts in the world.

As of the latest figures available (August 5, 2018), it had some 65,127 roundabouts – almost twice as many as the United Kingdom (32,599), according to data collected by the website Beyond the Maps, although no official government record on the topic exists.

Congestion to cultural identity

Roundabouts were initially conceived to help modern cities combat congestion and cut road accidents.

They also gained popularity with local politicians and artists as a tool to market their town or work. By law, any new road must have a certain amount of its budget allocated to artwork to adorn it, which is why you see so many artworks by motorways – and hence, roundabout art abounds.

However, in 2018, the gilets jaunes protests, which centred on roundabouts, gave credence to theories that the structures had come to symbolise deeper worries about French cultural identity.

Occupying them became a form of resistance for people who felt excluded from society.

Read more: Who are the gilets jaunes today?

Eric Alonzo is an architect and teacher at the Ecole d’architecture de la ville et des territoires, Paris, and France’s expert on all things roundabout-related, having written a book on the subject in 2005.

“Roundabouts in France are the story of a technical norm that sprawled nationwide,” he said.

History of roundabouts

Modern roundabouts have their roots in 17th-century forests and parks and were installed by André Le Nôtre, Louis XIV’s personal gardener, in various places around Paris along what would become the Champs-Elysées.

The first proper ones in France were implemented at the start of the 20th century by the architect and highly influential urban planner Eugène Hénard, who devoted much of his life to finding solutions to growing traffic problems in Paris.

Read more: Frenchman pioneered concept of roundabouts

By 1906, there were an estimated 65,543 vehicles in the capital. One of the most congested and most dangerous places to navigate, even then, was the Place de l’Etoile, with the Arc de Triomphe in its centre and 12 roads converging on to it, as there were no rules for moving round, entering or exiting the circuit. 

In 1897, a British man, Holroyd Smith, came up with the idea that there should only be movement in one direction in a circle.

The concept was applied in 1907 by Mr Hénard at both the Place de l’Etoile and the Place de la Nation in Paris. He called them carrefours à girations.

Who had the idea first?

His work came around the same time the United States installed New York’s Columbus Circle (1904), and the circular junction at Letchworth Garden City opened in the United Kingdom (1909), with the three countries disputing who had come up with the idea first. 

Michel Dalloni, a journalist from Le Monde who wrote a six-part series on roundabouts for the newspaper last year, said: “It is hard to track the creator of the modern roundabout since it appeared in several cities confronted by the new car congestion phenomenon.”

The US started to give up on roundabouts after World War One. So, too, did France, and the 1920s to 1960s were wilderness years, although some were built. 

‘British roundabouts’

It was not until engineer Léon de Paulou-Massat experimented with them in Essonne department to lower fatal crashes at crossroads that they caught on once more.

Here again, the UK proved a source of inspiration. Mr Paulou-Massat’s idea was to shrink the size of roundabouts and use a British ‘give way’ system, said Mr Alonzo.

“The French referred to them as ‘British roundabouts’. Some argued that the concept was so ‘typically British’ – relying on fair play and trust from drivers – that it would never work elsewhere.”

In fact, the experiment went so well that it prompted some of his students and admirers to extend the use of roundabouts to Brittany and southern France.

In the 1980s, former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, then mayor of Saint-Herblain (Loire-Atlantique), was taken on a trip to the UK to observe the mini-roundabouts the country had started to install to resolve congestion and accidents. 

It inspired the government to pass a decree in 1983 adopting the give-way-on-entry rule at all roundabouts.

When socialist president François Mitterrand opened France to more decentralisation and allowed regions to manage road systems as they liked, roundabouts exploded.

Mayors saw them as relatively cheap ways to lower accidents and, by putting art installations in the middle, to give drivers a good impression of their town. 

Symbols of alienation

However, Mr Alonzo in his book, as well as a growing number of sociologists and anthropologists, started highlighting how they had also become symbols of alienation.

In his final chapter, Mr Alonzo showed how they had moved away from their original road safety and traffic-easing purposes to take on political connotations.

Pierre Goetschel, a French filmmaker, developed this theory in a documentary on roundabouts in 2009.

“I wanted to explore the things surrounding us that we never question,” he said, adding that by this time roundabouts had become a symbol of France breaking up into separate, isolated spaces.

He said he was inspired by French writer Georges Perec, as well as anthropologist Marc Augé, who had included roundabouts as part of his ‘non-places’ theory to refer to spaces of transience where human beings remain anonymous.

Gilets jaunes protests

Unbeknown to Mr Goetschel, the documentary was 10 years ahead of its time.

The gilets jaunes protesters occupied roundabouts to express feelings of anger at being relegated from society.

“Protesters took to roundabouts as the space that personified their invisibility the most,” said Mr Goetschel.

No surprise that his documentary benefited from a ‘second life’ on TV in the aftermath of the protests.

The documentary also included other comments from Marc Augé that have found an echo in wider society in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

Mr Augé said roundabouts exemplify how modern society gives the illusion of free movement while the reality is a small elite are reaping the fruits of globalisation while throngs of people are “imprisoned at home” and destined to be “mere consumers feeding the machine”.

‘Peanut roundabout’ in Nozay

None of these concerns has stopped Loire-Atlantique experimenting further with roundabouts.

In January 2020, the town of Nozay unveiled its so-called ‘peanut roundabout’ in the shape of an elongated circle, a new twist on the traditional shape, designed to slow vehicles down.

Read more: French drivers welcome new ‘peanut-shaped roundabout’

Novel shape notwithstanding, it is surely still easier to navigate than the UK’s notorious ‘Magic Roundabout’ in Swindon. 

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