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What's behind the famous French tradition of torching cars?

Burning cars is something of a tradition in France, albeit a much hated one by authorities and car owners, and it appears to be on the rise again.


Every New Year’s Eve nervous car owners across France cross their fingers in the hope they can start the New Year with their vehicle intact.

That’s because of a longstanding French tradition that sees youths in certain parts of cities torching scores of cars.

The number of vehicles set alight on the night of December 31st climbed from 935 a year ago to 1,031, while arrests rose from 456 to 510, the interior ministry said on Monday.

Nevertheless stats released last year by France’s official crime data agency ONDRP reveal that the number of cars burned each year has fallen by 20 percent since 2010.

That was the good news for car owners and insurance firms.

The bad news is that tens of thousands of vehicles are still burned across the country.

The main burning season is in July and August, particularly on Bastille Day on July 14th when youths mark the annual fête nationale with their own firework shows.

The main reason for the fall according to the ONDRP is that the media take less interest now in the mass burning of cars, which means there may be less of a thrill for the arsonists.

(Some 20 vehicles were burned in Paris's 20th arrondissement recently. AFP)

Authorities have previously refrained from reporting on the number of torched cars on New Year's Eve after it was discovered that a district-by-district breakdown was fuelling destructive competition between rival gangs.

Added to that is that extra police are regularly deployed in sensitive areas on specific nights of the year to try to prevent the blazes.

The stats also showed that the departments most affected by the phenomenon were Haute-Corse in Corsica, Isere to the south east which includes Grenoble, and Oise, to the north of Paris.

Rural areas of France are much less affected than urban areas.

The car owners most affected are generally in the more hard-up neighbourhoods.

So why do the French burn cars anyway?

The custom of setting vehicles alight on New Year's Eve reportedly began in the east of the country, around Strasbourg, in the 1990s, in the the city's poorer neighbourhoods.

It was then quickly adopted by youths in cities across the country.

Cars are often set ablaze whenever there is an outbreak of social disorder, as seen in the 2005 riots when hundreds of vehicles were torched.

READ MORE: Why the French banlieues are ripe for repeat of 2005 riots

The ONDRP’s Christophe Schulz told Le Parisien newspaper that there are diverse reasons that youths burn cars.

“Vehicle fires are often associated with a context of riots and urban violence. It can also be a ‘game’ to break the monotony, or it could be motivated by vengeance after a violent arrest. Or it could just be to get rid of a car used in a crime or as an insurance scam.”

So while car owners might welcome the fall, they still face a few sleepless nights this summer.

GALLERY: Ten great French traditions under threat


Photo: Pixinoo/Depositphotos

A first version of this article was published in January 2016

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