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Why France’s hooligans burn cars on New Year’s eve: A look back at a bizarre tradition of arson

In the infamous riots of October 2005, more than 8000 vehicles being burned by the rioters. The perpetrators reportedly included individuals from African and Arab heritage.

While the world welcomed the New Year with muted celebrations, amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, France witnessed chaos and vandalism. This is despite the fact that the French government had deployed over one lac security personnel to enforce curfew amidst the pandemic and prevent the recurrent phenomenon of setting vehicles ablaze on New Year’s eve.

Activist Amy Mek tweeted how miscreants in Mulhouse in France attacked law enforcement authorities and firefighters, burnt down cars and hurled Molotov cocktails on New Year’s eve. She informed that french citizens had to remain captive in their own homes like prisoners.

In another tweet, Amy Mek stated, “Happy New Year from Sharia Franc. France’s traditional ‘burning of the infidel’s cars’ is taking place. Last year, 1,000+ vehicles were set on fire on the night of December 31. Will France’s cultural enrichers break last years record? I’m sure Macron & his media will cover it up.”

Tracing the ‘bizarre’ tradition of burning cars

France has witnessed recurrent incidents of car burning. It has assumed the shape of an annual event, prompting authorities to not publicise incidents of car burning to avoid competition in different areas. In 2019, about 1,457 cars were gutted on New Year’s Eve while 1,290 cars were set ablaze in 2018.

In the year 2014, the then French Interior Minister Manuel Valls informed that 1,067 cars were burnt across France on New Year’s Eve. The act of ‘vehicle arson’ had become a commonplace affair in poor suburbs near in the country. Reportedly, this ‘tradition’ began in Strasbourg, adjoining the French border with Germany in the 1980s and then reached its peak in 1990s.

Total number of cars burnt on New Year’s Eve in France

Media coverage and impact

In 1997, the French national media decided to cover the incidents. It encouraged the youth from rival housing estates to actively vandalise cars to grab the media spotlight. According to the then government official Patrice Magnier, there was a direct correlation between the increase in car burning incidents and ‘media focus.’ The police officials and local government bodies failed to curtail the practice, thereby, leading to a new peak between 2005-2009.

2005 riots and a precedent for car burning

In the infamous riots of October 2005, more than 8000 vehicles being burned by the rioters. The perpetrators reportedly included individuals from African and Arab heritage. The riots were triggered following the death of two teenagers in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris that lasted about 3 weeks. The riots involved setting buildings ablaze and frequent confrontation of rioters with the police, thereby forcing the French government to declare a state of Emergency.

Screengrab of France 24 news report from 2014

While 879 vehicles were gutted in fire in 2007, the numbers shot up to 1147 by 2009. The cases of arson were much higher in Paris-area housing projects (422 cars burnt) as compared to well-policed Parisian intra muros (12 cars burnt). It was observed that racially tense and poor neighbourhoods in Strasbourg, Lille, Toulouse and Nantes had witnessed higher instances of vehicle arson.

Arson as a way of French dissent

Car burning has now evolved to represent France’s way of ‘protest’. It has been observed that most people involved in arson are poor and often justify their actions as ‘defiance’ for lack of economic opportunities. Besides, such incidents are easy ways to pick up confrontations with law enforcement authorities and make quick bucks through insurance. Besides New Year’s eve, such incidents are also witnessed during France’s National holiday on July 14 (also called Bastille Day).

Screengrab of Time report from 2009

“While annual figures may fluctuate, they’ve generally swelled since the late 1970s, when French suburban youths first started burning cars as a way to get the attention of society, the media and politicians,” reported Time Magazine. It further added, “Later the practice became an ambush tactic to draw law and fire authorities to the scene — where they’d then be attacked by gangs. Now the act works as a manner of daily protest against alienation, discrimination and the indifference of more affluent French society.”

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Dibakar Dutta
Dibakar Dutta
Centre-Right. Political analyst. Assistant Editor @Opindia. Reach me at [email protected]

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