Things about France that surprised me: the French torch cars

Burning cars is something of a tradition in France, albeit one much despised by the authorities and (unsurprisingly) car owners and, unfortunately since the appearance of the gilets jaunes, it’s on the rise again.

Every New Year’s Eve nervous car owners across France cross their fingers hoping their cars – generally only those parked outside – will emerge unscathed. This is because of a longstanding French tradition where youths in the less celubrious parts of French cities torch scores of cars. The number of vehicles burned this New Year’s Eve totalled 1,031, an increase from last year’s 935.

However stats released last year by France’s official crime data agency (ONDRP) show that the number of cars burned each year has fallen by approx. 20% since 2010 – good news for car owners and insurance firms. The bad news is that tens of thousands of vehicles are still burned across the country each year.

Most cars are torched during the summer, particularly on Bastille Day (14th July) when those disaffected youths mark the annual fête nationale with their own pyrotechnic displays.

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

Authorities have previously refrained from reporting on the number of cars burned on New Year’s Eve after it was discovered that a district-by-district breakdown was fuelling destructive competition between rival gangs. In addition, 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 problem were Haute-Corse in Corsica, Isere to the south east (including Grenoble), and Oise, to the north of Paris. Rural areas of France are much less affected than urban areas, possibly because everyone knows everyone else in small villages and cars are less likely to be parked on the road. Sadly the car owners most affected are generally those in the more hard-up neighbourhoods who may only have third-party cover.

So how did it all start?

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 nationwide.

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 and again now with the gilets jaunes.

According to an article in Le Parisien, there are many reasons why 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.

ONDRP’s Christophe Schulz

Why do the French really burn cars?

But to get the inside track, I spoke to a few French youths, not necessarily ones who’ve torched cars. I don’t want people to be confused by the title, French people don’t burn cars just for kicks, like: “I don’t know what to do today. Oh! Check this car. Why don’t I torch it just to pass the time?”

Truth is, in a riot, cars are the easiest thing to burn: they’re just there, in the street, exactly where you’re busy rioting. And you’re mad, you want to destroy something, possibly set it on fire, and guess what, there’s dozens of them, full of flamable parts, just sitting there, almost begging to be burned. In other words, don’t park where there’s a riot or likely to be a riot.

That being said, keep in mind a few factors: cars get burned every night for a bunch of different reasons, but they seem to interest the media only on New Year’s Eve. And while it’s true that many more cars are burned on that night (it goes from a few dozen around the country on a normal night to hundreds on New Year’s Eve), I also think that the media played a role, especially in the spreading of the tradition to other cities. If they hadn’t initially made a big deal out of it in Strasbourg, I don’t think kids from other cities’ ghettos would have done it too.

And there it is, the elephant in the room. Those car burnings don’t take place in random streets, most if not all of them are in poor neighborhoods, the projects, the places the French government created a few decades ago to lodge immigrants and has since totally abandoned – we even have a few on the Cote d’Azur. So, not unnaturally, their inhabitents feel excluded, because they are.

As [cycling] club secretary, I used to occasionally attend a meeting in one of Nice’s poorer districts. During the meeting the car park would be guarded to protect our cars!

You might be wondering why folk get away with this. Quite simply because you can’t put a guard on every car or car park. And also, because as previously mentioned, most cars get burnt in the poor neighborhoods. It might be a whole different matter, if it were happening in rich neighbourhoods but that’s where cars are typically parked in secure garages, with video surveillance – like ours – and are much less easy to access.

So, in short, some French burn cars as a protest because they can!

12 Comments on “Things about France that surprised me: the French torch cars

  1. wow…. i dont feel bad for the insurance companies as much as those companies burn people every day but i feel bad for the car owners. thanks for sharing this, wow is the only word i can seem to say.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Its a stupid French mentality to burn your neighbors cars, if upset they can burn the police cars etc as we did when youth in the USA other periods!!!

    Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, lived in Rome years ago and it happened there as well. I was alarmed and surprised but the locals not so much.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I do confirm that in Rome there are some random fools who use to burn cars or garbage bins… Unfortunately we do not have the same cohesion and strength to stand up for our rights as French do. By the way, I think it is completely non sense and useless to burn things

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, it’s useless to burn stuff but I too admire the French solidarity when they’re not happy.


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