A Life in a Year – 29th July, Traffic Chaos at the Arc de Triomphe

In 1978 I visited the French capital Paris for the first time and as we visited the major sites of the city we inevitably found ourselves at the Arc de Triomphe.

Commissioned by the Emperor, Napoleon III, to instigate a program of planning reforms in Paris in the mid-19th century, the civic planner, Baron Haussmann, set out to make Paris the grandest city in Europe. The twelve arterial boulevards that converge upon and then radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe were part of his master plan, the creation of a series of major roads, intersecting at diagonals with monuments as centrepieces.

It’s obvious however that Haussmann’s plan did not anticipate the automobile.

The traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe is extremely intimidating. At really busy times, like referees at a gladiator fight, traffic police are stationed at each entrance to this traffic circus, letting in bursts of eager cars at regular intervals.  There are no lanes and none of the usual rules of driving etiquette as hundreds of cars race and weave in and out of each other like dodgem cars at a fairground.  The French have a ludicrous driving rule called priorité à droite where vehicles from the right always have priority at junctions and roundabouts.  This rule is in fact so ludicrous that even though the French themselves have seen the sense of virtually abandoning elsewhere but it remains the rule here at the busiest roundabout in France (probably) and cars entering the circle have the right-of-way whilst those in the circle must yield.  There is no apparent lane discipline that I could make out and entering the roundabout is an extended game of ‘chance’ where drivers simply waited to see whose nerve would fold and who would yield first.

Apparently there is a car accident within the roundabout on average every seven minutes and allegedly there is not a single insurance company in the world that covers accidents within the roundabout. This is the only place in Paris where the accidents are not judged and if there is a prang here, each driver is considered equally at fault. No matter what the circumstances, insurance companies split the costs fifty-fifty.

We approached the Arch from the Champs Elysee and as far as I could see there was no safe way of crossing and getting to the monument until we eventually found the underground tunnel which took us safely below the traffic and into the Place de Charles de Gaulle.  Begun in 1806, the arch was intended to honour Napoleon’s soldiers, who, in spite of being vastly outnumbered by the Austrians, scored a remarkable victory at the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon died long before the arch was completed but it was finished in time for his posthumous homecoming in 1840 and inaugurated on 29th July 1836.  Nineteen years after he died in exile on St. Helena, his remains were carried in a grand parade underneath his grand arch.

I was keen to climb the two hundred and eighty-four steps to the top because I wanted to watch the traffic chaos below because I was absolutely certain that it would only be a matter of a few seconds before we witnessed a major pile up but the Parisian drivers expertly navigate the circle like comets circling the sun and turn the chaos into a symphony of stop start movement entering the circle, pushing, pausing, dodging and weaving and eventually exiting at the chosen boulevard and in fifteen minutes I didn’t see so much as a scratch never mind a major traffic incident.

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