In France, Nothing Says ‘Happy New Year’ Like a Burning Car

France's leftist government ends previous blackout on nationwide New Year's Eve car burning by revealing figures confirming the spread of France's distinctive tradition of auto arson as protest

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Jean-Marc Loos / Reuters

A car burns after being torched during New Year celebrations in the Strasbourg district of Neuhof, France, on Jan. 1, 2013

Burn out the old year; torch in the new. France celebrated the onset of 2013 in its uniquely pyromaniac fashion, with officials reporting that 1,193 cars were torched overnight from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 — 209 of them in the Paris area alone. Those figures marked a 4% increase over the 1,147 autos set ablaze on the same night in 2009 — the last year for which French officials released figures on the nation’s peculiar New Year rite.

The mere fact the government of Socialist President François Hollande resumed publication of the burnt-car toll also caused sparks to fly. Conservative opponents claimed that revealing the information only poured gas on the New Year’s fires by inspiring copycat arsonists, while leftists countered that they were simply informing the public about a reality hidden by the previous government of the right. But as the debate raged over whether to publicize the nation’s flaming-auto fetish, some French observers sought explanations for the singularly antisocial custom of car toasting.

(MORE: France’s New Year’s Tradition: Car Burning)

“Why are cars burned on Dec. 31?” asked French Web news site Mediapart.

“Burning Cars: A ‘Tradition’ That Remains Strong,” lamented a Jan. 2 headline in the daily Le Figaro.

More amazing, still, is the fact that the New Year’s Eve auto roast is only part of the story. In announcing the New Year’s Eve tally on Jan. 2, Interior Minister Manuel Valls also revealed that figures provided by fire, police and insurance officials indicate that somewhere between 42,000 and 60,000 automobiles are intentionally torched in France every year. The majority of those go up in smoke in or near the disadvantaged suburban housing projects located outside most French cities. Indeed, the rest of the world first took notice of France’s distinctive car-burning penchant during the three weeks of nationwide rioting in French housing projects in 2005, when 8,810 automobiles were incinerated by enraged youths. Yet, despite that riot-driven surge of car arson, year-end figures of around 43,000 for 2005 came in at around normal levels. Normal, that is, for flame-happy France.

(MORE: Why Paris Is Burning)

When the conservative government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy began withholding New Year’s car-arson figures in 2010, officials said the move was designed to suppress copycat attacks, noting that youths in rival housing projects across France had begun competing over which town could produced the most charred autos. Conservatives accused Valls of egging on the vandals through his return to transparency.

“[It’s not] the sharpest of our fellow citizens who burn cars, nor the local little Einstein,” former Sarkozy Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told Europe 1 radio Jan. 3, mocking Valls’ decision to reverse the blackout policy. “Did it work? Yes it worked, because the annual numbers of burned cars decreased.”

Both Hortefeux’s claim and the reasoning behind it are contested by leftists and many independent researchers alike. Some have dismissed his charge against Valls as specious, while others have repeated previously aired suspicions that Sarkozy governments used creative accounting to artificially reduce crime rates on their watch. Hortefeux’s explanation also appears to considerably oversimplify a longstanding and steadily escalating French tradition of automotive pyromania — a trend that has increased no matter how governments have communicated on it.

(MORE: Why a Cop Is France’s Favorite Politician)

According to sociologists and delinquency experts, car burning as a ritualistic expression of protest began in disadvantaged areas of northeastern France in the 1980s, before gradually spreading to project communities elsewhere. Initially, scholars say, torching autos was seen as a spectacular form of destruction that pulled the attention of news media and authorities to the dismal economic and social conditions in the perpetrators’ neighborhoods. Others offer more subjective and artistic explanations for the phenomenon, seeing it as a perverse form of protest over the isolation of project areas with little or no link via public transportation to more affluent city centers or expressing a contradiction between individualism and social solidarity.

Then, there’s the pecuniary motivation. French insurance experts and justice officials estimate that around 20% of all annual car arson is financially motivated fraud conducted by — or with the accord of — owners themselves. The perpetrators of random auto burning often, in fact, dismiss ethical questions about scorching a neighborhood car with rationalizations that insured victims will be compensated for their loss. The average payout on an automobile protected by fire insurance is around $6,500 — no mean sum in areas where unemployment exceeds 25%, and youth joblessness is closer to 50%.

Whatever the motives, increasingly demoralized advocates for improving conditions in the projects warn that one day delinquent arsonists will question the protest strategy of torching what few objects of value exist in their disadvantaged midst, and instead start targeting autos in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods where such destruction will really gain attention. It’s only when that happens, some activists fear, that the sparks in France will really start to fly.

MORE: The Problem of Clichy: After 2005 Riots, France’s Suburbs Are Still Miserable