Fifteen or 20 years ago I offered readers a prize for the funniest roundabout in France – or rather a photo of it. I had lots of entries. It was the time when the rondpoint was a fairly new way of dealing with a crossroads, and local authorities seized on it as a means of self-expression or advertising. Most involved gardening of some kind, some in a flower-show sort of spirit, some so garish that no lights could compete, some ambitiously advertising local industry – a vineyard or a jet fighter – and many intentionally or unintentionally very funny.
Now it’s gone beyond a joke. The old pleasures of motoring in France are threatened by such aggressive road-building that you can only approach most towns along miles of by-passes, through thickets of road-signs, along narrow lanes of tarmac between overbearing kerbs and bollards, over speed-humps steep enough to shake your head off. ‘Toutes Directions’ is the unhelpful universal signpost. If you can find ‘Centre Ville’ in the forest of instructions it leads you into a maze from which you despair of escaping. If you ever come across the historic market place its buildings are obliterated by more bossy signs and chaotically parked cars. There is no escape.
Worst of all, smaller and smaller towns are boosting their self-importance by aping big ones, installing rondpoints and hiding their ‘Ville Fleurie **’ boards with signs to their ‘Zones d’Activités’ (while activité ebbs from their ancient hearts). Hamlets aspiring to be villages are joining the game. My current prize-winner is a one-horse village in the Médoc we now call Arcins-Les-Quatre-Ralentisseurs. There is one speed-hump to greet you at each end of the short street and two outside the tiny mairie. You laugh so that you may not cry.