New Year’s Day 2016: Our car is one of thousands stalled on the AP-7 autopista, waiting to cross the Pyrenees into France. The fire has gone out of the bellies of most drivers, who’ve quit their frenzied switching of lanes and are now going through the robotic motions. First gear, handbrake off, roll forward, brake, neutral, handbrake on. Repeat.
Everyone has realised there’s no easy way out of this, so they’re giving up the wheel to their passengers, having slow-moving picnics, or in the case of two cars in the lane next to us, have broken out hookas to smoke some shisha. A recovery truck goes by in the hard shoulder, carrying a VW Passat that has given up.
We’re all here, nose to tail, thanks to the “border controls” that the French government, brought into force following the Paris November 13th attacks. In a previous article, I documented my recent slow crossing from Belgium into France. That crossing was rip-roaringly rapid in comparison to today’s torpid crawl. This is the real deal, with three 120 kilometre-an-hour lanes slowed to nothing, then funneled into one. It’s a farce.
Passing the sprawl of truck stops, outlet shops and strip clubs of La Jonquera, around 6km from the border, there was little evidence of what lay ahead. We drove through the final motorway toll in Catalonia, rounded the next bend and boom, and joined a 90-minute plod to the border.
Our only warning was digital motorway messages warning of “border controls until 10pm at the French border”. Relatives had passed this way late the night before and had confirmed the empty roads, and that the French police had knocked off for the night. Terrorists, it seems, tend to be tucked up in bed by nine-thirty.
Stuck in three lanes of traffic, our six month old son getting restless in the back, we’re annoyed with ourselves for not having the sense to take another, less congested route.
When we passed this way two weeks ago, the tailback was coming the opposite direction, a 5km snarl all the way back to the final French péage at Le Boulou. We counted ourselves lucky. Heading south again on Monday, we crossed via the twisting coastal road between Cerbère and Portbou, with the Mediterranean to our left. The border crossing between the two towns, heavily decorated in graffiti, looked like it hadn’t operated since Franco was in nappies. Terrorists, apparently, abhor scenic coastal routes, and will do anything to avoid the fleshpots and consumer fantasies of La Jonquera, instead attempting to slip lorryloads of AK-47s across a constricted motorway border crossing. Ok, I’m being flippant – there’s plenty going on in Catalonia and Spain. Two people were arrested outside Barcelona in November before the Paris attacks – amongst many arrested for recruiting for Daesh. On the French side of the border, there was that story from July 2015, about a terrorist attack on Fort Béar, near the coastal town of Port-Vendres, where the suspects apparently planned to kidnap and behead a soldier, this month: January 2016. None of which explains why we’re sitting in six kilometre-long traffic jam.
The Pyrenean pass in which we find ourselves is famous. The great Punic Carthaginian general, Hannibal, marched across this same pass in 218BC, having departed what is today Cartagena, bound for Italy to fight the Romans. With 40,000 foot soldiers, 12,000 horsemen and 38 elephants, he had to fight his way to the border, yet it seems that crossing the Pyrenees at the rather low Col du Perthus was a relatively straightforward affair for him, despite the lack of three-lane motorway. Maybe we should be using elephants. There are no reports of the Romans restricting border traffic into Gaul until after Hannibal stormed in. Bet they were sorry.
Staring at the long line of traffic, I stop myself from wandering into idioms about white elephants, or elephants in rooms. First gear, handbrake off…
Let’s be clear: I’m not moaning about traffic jams; motorway snarls are often caused by accidents or other misfortunes. I will not complain about “traffic”; when we sit in a car, we become traffic. I’m not even talking about the CO2 or particulate matter spewed out by 3,000 trucks and cars crawling in first gear over the Pyrenees, into the nearby forests, like the Albera Natural Area of National Interest. I’m complaining about the deliberate creation by French authorities of a massive traffic jam – which grew to an astonishing 21km long over the weekend, in order to crudely pretend that it’s of some use, and that by putting up with some inconvenience that we are all playing a part in stopping terrorism. It’s nonsense.
It’s not just about efficiency and efficacy, it’s about governments like Belgium and France slinging mud at the wall in the brave hope that some will stick. It’s governments simply wanting to be seen to be doing something. It’s the Belgian government, after admitting that the famous “Brussels Lockdown” was a bit over the top, come out with a plan to increase its “terror levels” from four till five. FIVE. I’m sure everyone is now sleeping sounder in their beds, once they can make it through the traffic jams, and get home to their beds.
Instead, France has succeeded in creating something that is at best an inconvenience for innocent, weary travellers, and at worst, a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation. What is the point of halting the journeys of thousands of people, if you’re going to let anyone who feels the urge to come to France to cross at midnight? Does Hollande, Valls or Cazeneuve plan to keep up this charade into the summer holidays, when traffic on the AP-7 is already jammed up, in 30 of 40 degrees of heat? Will les flics be sauntering through the simmering traffic, distributing cool bottles of Perrier and tubs of sorbet, and carrying out those who have succumbed to the heat and dehydration? Or will they quite this nonsense, on the basis that terrorists take holidays like the rest of us?
An hour and a half and six kilometres later, after all merging into one excruciating lane, we crawl across the border, diverging into two slow lines, one for trucks, and one for cars. As half a dozen policemen with machineguns watch us roll past, I note a soup-up black SEAT hatchback pulled in, presumably for questioning or a search. I wonder about our sheesh smoking neighbours, and whether they will get harassed for Driving While Presumably Muslim.
We cross the border, and suddenly the rode is clear and nearly empty. We steam through the péage at Le Boulou without incident, heading for Perpignan. That, we agree, was a total waste of time, not just for all of us delayed, but in the efforts to protect anyone anywhere.