France’s Odd New Year Tradition: Counting Torched Cars

France 24, January 3, 2014

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls held a press conference on Wednesday to report on crime over New Year, and gave the most highly anticipated statistic: the numbers of cars torched during the celebrations.

Highlighting that January 1 was “one of the year’s most important events in terms of pubic security”,Valls also addressed the deaths of three people who were stabbed in separate incidents. The minister then delivered the tally: 1,067 cars were torched across the country the previous evening.

Vehicle arson—mostly confined to disadvantaged suburbs near big cities—has become an embarrassing tradition of bringing in the New Year in France. Furthermore, the public expects to be informed exactly how many cars were set alight, in what could be seen from abroad as a unique and bizarre annual ritual.

Valls was quick to point out that there had been a 10% drop in the number of incidents on last year.

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The infamous custom can be traced to the northeastern city of Strasbourg that straddles France’s border with Germany.

Strasbourg, which hosts thousands of tourists who flock to the city for its renowned Christmas market, first began to be blighted by holiday season vehicle arson in the late 1980s. But the phenomenon exploded to alarming levels during the 1990s.

The year 1997 proved to be decisive. That year the national media descended en mass on the bustling picturesque city following a spree of car burnings, as young vandals from rival housing estates began “competing” for the media spotlight.

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Despite efforts by the police and local bodies, the tradition has not been stamped out. Rather, it has spread across France, with a new peak in New Year’s car burning between 2005 and 2009.

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Car burning is not limited to New Year celebrations in France. Bastille Day, France’s national holiday on July 14, also sees a peak in incidents.

Observers who have studied urban violence in France say youths from poor communities burn cars as a form of protest against the state, who they blame for their lack of economic opportunities.

It is also a direct way for them to defy law enforcement, and provoke confrontations with police.

The spike in New Year’s Eve car arson starting in the mid-2000s is likely related to the wave of urban unrest that gripped France in October and November 2005.

Following the controversial death of two teens in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, young men from disadvantaged districts across the country clashed with police for several nights, burning public buildings and dozens of vehicles each night.

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