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Roundabouts: a France that is not going round

Posted on June 4, 2022


In his sketch on roundabouts and forbidden directions, the brilliant Raymond Devos denounced some of the contradictions in the mode of administration of our economy more than 50 years ago. Locked in a circular system from which he can no longer get out, his motorist is summoned by a public official to pay a tourist tax…

Since then, roundabouts have proliferated and things have not improved at all.

France, country of cheese and wine has also become that of roundabouts. We know that there were 12,000 in 1994. After this date, no more official figures have been published. But it is estimated that about 800 are built each year. There would therefore be clearly more than 30,000 in France, which has six times more than Germany and concentrates half of the existing roundabouts in the world.

Roundabouts, a French invention that succeeded too well

The paternity goes to the architect Eugène Hénard.

In 1907 he had the idea of ​​having vehicles turn in a circle at crossroads in order to avoid hazardous crossings. The aim was to limit accidents by adapting traffic routes inherited from the past to rapidly expanding traffic. For a long time common sense prevailed and roundabouts with priority to the right were not an issue.

But at the end of the 1970s, a few socialist councilors, including Jean-Marc Ayrault, future Prime Minister and at the time mayor of Saint-Herblain near Nantes, became its promoters. Since then they have multiplied in their English version which gives priority to cars already inserted. In a first phase of experimentation, the device was adopted by large cities in the West such as Quimper and Nantes.

In 1983 it became the norm when the Highway Code ratified the end of priority for entrants.

The same year, the socialo-communist government of Pierre Mauroy implemented the first decentralization laws. The municipal authorities take over the powers of town planning and roads. The construction of roundabouts is racing with the driving argument of safety proclaimed with a loud trumpeting by the National Interministerial Observatory for Road Safety (ONISR). On bases that are fragile to say the least, he suggests initially that the risk of accident would decrease by around 40% in roundabouts compared to a conventional intersection equipped with traffic lights. In a recent document, justification is repeated in a minor key. Without giving more details, ONISR claims that from 1980 to 1990 “the construction of roundabouts significantly reduces the number of fatal accidents”.

The device is therefore supposed to increase user safety. But we can doubt it because according to a recent study by Road Safety, 93% of drivers believe they do not know the rules for taking a roundabout: should they put their indicators on or not, stand in the left lane or the one on the right, when should you check the blind spots? None of these points is obvious to French motorists. We also note that in terms of the number of victims of road accidents France does not do better than its European neighbors where roundabouts are however much rarer.

A staggering cost

The question of their social utility arises all the more acutely as roundabouts are expensive. Their installation cost is generally between 200,000 and one million euros, depending on the layout, the decorations chosen and the possible cost of land.

The annual budget allocated to them is therefore more than substantial. In four decades, clearly more than 20 billion euros have already been devoted to it, according to the Contribuables Associés association.

The bills are in fact often much higher than expected while some roundabouts mainly serve as artistic support, which the association denounces. In its proposals for the worst roundabout, it names, among others, that of La Haye-Fouassière, which is one of some 3,000 roundabouts in Loire-Atlantique. Created in 1993, this one represents a space saucer and cost no less than 400,000 euros.

But the palm undoubtedly goes to the very expensive sausage roundabout in Montpellier.

Yet claiming himself from the left, Mathieu Pigasse, former leader of Lazard France fulminates:

“Six billion euros gobbled up each year in the roundabouts, of which nearly two are devoted to the decoration of these magnificent public works alone: ​​rattan baskets filled with shells, plastic cows grazing wisely on false meadows, abstract sculptures , rockets, royal stags in majesty, giant birds taking flight…”

There is therefore the question of the cost, but even more so that of the opportunity cost of these installations, the financing of which has crowded out that of other projects which could have been much more useful to the community.

The tyranny of small decisions

Therefore, we are led to ask ourselves how did we get here. To find a possible answer, we must turn to this often forgotten form of socialism, municipal socialism.

Led by local elected officials whose vision of the world is most often confused with that of their region or their district, it has infiltrated from below with the unfailing support of the Council of State and holds a good part of the France under his influence.

From the point of view of these followers of a very simplified version of the thought of Keynes, building roundabouts presents only advantages. It’s an easy solution that pleases everyone but that hides very French ills: clientelism, opportunism and corporatism.

The resulting expenses are in fact not lost on all the players in the local economy and are easy to justify to the public even though they are of little use and are lacking in other investments of otherwise strategic scope.

On the communal level, it is a consensual solution which reflects a notable lack of audacity and imagination.

On a global level, the proliferation of roundabouts is the result of a myriad of small decisions that undermine our economy. By combining in the thousands, they impose their tyranny according to a process well analyzed by the sociologist Thomas Schelling (Micromotives and macrobehavior, 1966)

This state of affairs is a source of permanent weakness for our country. Moreover, the question of roundabouts is only the most visible part of the problem, the tip of the iceberg which freezes private initiatives. It is indeed the same decision-makers who indebt their local authorities by letting, out of pure clientelism, the personnel costs become excessively heavy. They are the same people who put their community in debt while increasing a stifling tax burden for productive business investment.

What Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his supporters of the PS, still well established locally, is now proposing is the generalization of this inefficient system that generates indebtedness and regression. If they were to get good scores in the next legislative elections, our already weakened economy is heading for disaster. Like the motorist of Devos, we will all be condemned to turn endlessly in a draconian system.

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