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 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.