France’s odd New Year tradition: Counting torched cars
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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 31 was “one of the year’s most important events in terms of public 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.
Tradition started in Strasbourg
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.
Local government official Patrice Magnier said at the time he saw a clear “correlation between the media focus on the phenomenon and the rise in incidents.”
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.
Form of protest
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.
A numbers game
Blaming media coverage and the obsession for figures, Valls' two predecessors at the interior ministry decided not to give figures on the seasonal wave of destruction in 2010 and 2011.
However, this move also prompted criticism from some corners. Opponents said that the ministers were more than willing to share the number of arrests on New Year’s Eve and were in fact only hiding those figures that could prove embarrassing for the government.
Valls, a Socialist, reinstated the practice of revealing the car burning numbers last year, and pledged to do the same in 2013 as the year drew to a close.
Figures from the past few years reveal a general trend away from New Year car burnings, despite the continuing unemployment issues in France. But this year’s festivities showed the troubling tradition remains widespread.
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