Update: The French press reported that the Interior Ministry released a final "verified" count of 1,147 vehicles burned in France over New Year's Eve. The number is up 30.64% from last year's total, 878.
REUTERS - At least 445 cars were torched over the night of New Year's Eve in France, a 20 percent rise on last year, but there were relatively few clashes with police, the Interior Ministry and police said on Thursday.
Car burnings are regular occurrences in France but the registering the New Year's Eve total has become something of a tradition since they achieved symbolic status in the violent rioting that shook many of the country's poor suburbs in 2005.
With riots in Athens heightening worries that the economic crisis might spark a resurgence of the violence seen in the run-down "banlieues" then, 35,000 police were mobilised on New Year's Eve, some 7,000 more than last year.
Officials were also on guard against possible attacks after five sticks of dynamite were left in a Paris department store just before Christmas by a so-far unidentified group demanding a withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan.
An Interior Ministry official said that as of 6:00 a.m. (0500 GMT), 445 car burnings had been registered, against 372 at the same time a year before and police had made 288 arrests, compared with 259 on Dec. 31, 2007.
"There were few 'contacts' with police, gendarmes and fire services but an increase in the number of burnings for which we don't have an explanation at the moment," the official said.
There were around 50 burnings in the eastern city of Strasbourg, where police made 17 arrests, including four people caught while setting fire to cars.
In the southern city of Toulouse, 12 cars were burned in areas at the edge of the city limits, while in Nantes, around 10 cars were torched although police in the western city said New Year's Eve had been "pretty calm".