France’s summer SigAlert

Times Staff Writer

Frederic Arnold never met Julio Cortazar, but they would have appreciated each other’s work.

Arnold is a French public servant, a quiet, compact engineer who wears black and an air of patient resignation. He oversees the National Center for Highway Information, which is grappling with an annual vacation exodus of potentially apocalyptic proportions.

The late Cortazar was an Argentine author, a playful, lanky globe-trotter who lived in Paris for years. In 1966 he wrote a short story, “The Highway of the South,” which imagines a monster traffic jam near the capital and takes it to surreal extremes: The stranded drivers organize mini-communities, forage for supplies, make love, fight and even die in the steel sea of vehicles.


“The engineer decided not to get out of his car anymore, hoping that the police would somehow disperse the bottleneck. The heat of August combined with a passage of time marked by tires so that the immobility was ever more exasperating. Everything was the smell of gasoline, rowdy yells from the youths in the Simca, the glare of the sun reflecting off glass and chrome, and to top it off the contradictory sensation of being trapped in the heart of a jungle of machines designed for speed.”

Four decades later, Cortazar’s vision remains relevant.

As usual, the first weekend in August was the dark vortex of the summer stampede. On Saturday, French highways experienced a total of 434 miles of traffic jams. Government transport analysts designated the day with the worst level in the color-coded hierarchy of congestion: “Black Saturday.”

“That means the traffic jams start at 3 a.m. and keep going,” Arnold said with a wry grin. “Black Saturday is black all day and all night.”

It’s hard to imagine a vacation period worse than last year’s. The troubles started in May, a month filled with long weekends thanks to obscure religious and national holidays. On Sunday the 20th, the drive from Toulouse to Paris took about 10 hours rather than the normal six.

It was Hobbesian. Gas stations were besieged, pumps mobbed, toilets unapproachably foul. Rest stop eateries were so full that families were reduced to munching stale sandwiches as they stood next to overflowing garbage cans.

The worst stretch was a toll plaza. Formal lines evaporated along with civility and order. The blacktop leading to the booths was an anarchic, shark-like swarm of vehicles. The sun beat down on steel cages containing apoplectic drivers, wailing children, overheated motors. Periods of immobility were broken by frenzies as drivers maneuvered into currents of movement, then readjusted frantically as they realized the apparent lines led nowhere.


In fact, toll plazas produce the worst bottlenecks, Arnold said. Human nature dictates that a certain percentage of drivers will not have money ready when they get to the booth -- and will fumble around trying to pay. Moreover, many foreigners refuse to pay with timesaving credit cards because of high charges on non-French cards.

“The bottom line is, everybody has to slow down,” Arnold said.

If France’s sophisticated system of traffic control were compared to a human body, Arnold would be the brain. He oversees a high-tech headquarters in this eastern Paris suburb that coordinates seven regional operations centers staffed by the civilian transport agency, police and paramilitary gendarmerie.

France has a first-class highway grid and, as an alternative, perhaps the world’s best railroad network. But traffic is rooted in prosperity. There’s the sheer number of people -- tycoons and janitors, bureaucrats and immigrants -- who take vacations at the same time (July or August) and in the same places (southern France, Spain, Italy and North Africa). Geography also subjects France to a simultaneous invasion of sun-hungry Belgians, Britons and Dutch.

Like Californians, the French are attached to their cars despite obscene prices at the pump.

“It’s no longer a question of more cars, but rather increased use of the car for longer commutes, and for leisure,” said Manuel Martinez, director of the traffic operations center for Ile-de-France, the region surrounding Paris.

The state-of-the-art center in Creteil southeast of the capital has a wall-size screen displaying radar, images from 900 surveillance cameras and giant maps depicting real-time road conditions. Martinez oversees an area that is slightly larger in size and population than Los Angeles County.

The dense traffic in Ile-de-France subsides in summer, except of course for the days of massive departures and returns. Then the most hellish highways are the A-6 and A-7, the southeast route to Lyon, the beaches of the Riviera and the Alps. Traffic reports during peak travel periods sound like a litany of wine industry capitals, giving Arnold a patriotic tingle.

“Many of the difficult stretches correspond to places where there are great wines,” he said. “You start the day with the traffic jams in Burgundy and then move south through the wines of the Rhone Valley.”

A busy southwest artery, the A-10, draws devotees of Atlantic resorts such as Biarritz as well as Moroccan immigrant families making the bleary-eyed trek home via Spain, sometimes in aging vehicles piled precariously with purchases.

“There was talk of an emergency operation to clear the highway, but other than a helicopter that appeared briefly at dusk, they saw no other preparations. People seemed eager for nightfall to wrap themselves in blankets and abolish in sleep a few more hours of waiting. . . . Lying in his 404, the engineer seemed to hear a moan, but thought that the soldier and his wife were involved in something that, after all, was understandable given the dark night and the circumstances. . . . He saw a yard and a half away the eternal windshield of the Caravelle and behind it, pressed against the glass and a bit sideways, the convulsed face of a man. Without making noise he got out on the left in order not to wake the nuns and approached the Caravelle. . . . Clearly the man had committed suicide by taking some kind of poison.”

The French (and other Europeans) go a little crazy where their summer vacation is concerned. You do not want to get in their way. Employees rush through projects or simply disappear. Masters abandon pets, sometimes shoving dogs out of cars at the roadside. In 2003, the corpses of dozens of elderly Parisians, among 15,000 victims of a heat wave, languished in city morgues because their families chose not to interrupt their beach getaways for the funerals.

The relentless pursuit of leisure asserted itself last month during Bastille Day festivities, an unlucky juxtaposition of a long weekend with the traditional launch of summer. A total of 319 miles of unmoving cars set a record for the holiday. Robert, a motorist interviewed behind the wheel by Le Parisien newspaper, complained that he had advanced less than two miles in two hours.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t want to leave later and miss out on vacation hours,” he said.

In 1976, news reports about worsening highway problems gave rise to a robust culture of road information. The cartoon icon for the last 32 years has been Bison Fute (Clever Buffalo), a plucky Native American warrior who fills the radio, Internet and other media with updates on road conditions and safety tips.

“Bison Fute is an excellent antidepressant,” Arnold said. “If you tell people things, they remain calm. Drivers are prepared. They bring their provisions, their water. They know what it will be like. They accept that the situation is tough, and that the state is not at fault.”

The state may not be blameless, but it has put energy into solutions. The mid- 1980s resembled a slow-motion road massacre as accidents killed 12,000 people a year. In 2002, the government finally got tough on ingrained, but deranged, habits: downing wine during rest-stop lunches, tailgating at top speed, all but doubling the 80-mph speed limit. The number of deaths dropped below 5,000 last year.

A host of measures helps regulate traffic. Trucks and school buses are barred on peak travel days to smooth the flow and avoid high-casualty crashes. Authorities redirect motorists to recently constructed, less-traveled highways. The transport bureaucracy has been streamlined and has acquired an ecological focus after being absorbed into a new Ministry for Environment and Energy.

Traffic is a bit like crime, Arnold said. It seems worse partly because techniques for measurement are more advanced, increasing public awareness.

Curiously, he said, road rage incidents are more frequent during everyday commutes than during the summer inferno on the blacktop. People seem to regard suffering on wheels as part of the vacation ritual.

At the end of “The Highway of the South,” the traffic jam finally breaks up. Gathering speed, the engineer feels a masochistic nostalgia for his lost community: the camaraderie of meals and chats among the cars, the sweet-faced driver of a Renault Dauphine who is pregnant with his child.

“And they were rushing at 50 miles an hour toward the lights that grew bit by bit, without really knowing anymore the reason for so much haste, the reason for this race in the night among unknown cars where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked steadily forward, exclusively forward.”