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The New French Tradition of Burning Cars

Matters of public safety are generally considered newsworthy and no place is more indisputably ‘public’ than roads and highways. But, sometimes, media exposure of occurrences on roads and highways may serve only to exacerbate a problem. Minimizing ‘copy-cat-ism’ may call for suppressing the story.

Internet and print-based discussion surrounding the recent closely-watched French elections has included some reference to weird behaviour that supposedly has been happening on the roads and highways of France for the past few decades—namely the allegedly unique and new French tradition of burning cars, particularly engaged in at New Year’s, but also throughout the year amounting to an average of 40,000 cars torched per year.

This so-called tradition is said to have originated in northeastern France in Strasbourg, the historic and small-ish capital city of the Grand Est region, (formerly Alsace) and appropriately enough given its proximity to Germany, home to the European Parliament.

Now car burning has reportedly spread throughout the country. New Year’s Eve 2009 saw 1,147 vehicles burned; 2013, the last publicized count was up slightly at 1,193. Commentators note, however, that these numbers are not “considered by the French government to be particularly high” given the average annual totals —a mere seasonal spike.

Why this ‘tradition’ has developed is, of course, the subject of much discussion. The perpetrators are mostly youths, probably unemployed, probably members of the immigrant communities generally described as being unassimilated into French culture. Outside of this group are common criminals using car burning as a cover to destroy cars they have stolen and used illegally. Insurance fraudsters are said to have also joined in, estimated to be causing “less than 20 percent” of the destruction, which spokespersons for the French auto-insurance industry claim is “not that important in the grand scheme” while also admitting this cost is driving up everyone’s premiums.

In 2013 the New York Times newspaper revealed that “During the autumn 2005 riots that rocked some of Paris’s more volatile suburbs, more than 8,800 cars were burned. At the time, French television censored images of the car-burning so as not to encourage the practice.” The NYT went on to report that in 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government decided to suppress the data “in the hope that it would keep juvenile delinquents in French towns from trying to outdo one another.”

Soon, however, in the interest of speaking in the name of “the truth due to the French people” came the turnaround. Critics advanced the original rationale for suppression saying this risked “reigniting the competitions between areas and between rival gangs to see who can burn the most vehicles.”

Canada remains a relatively safe and secure corner of the world with roads and highways seldom providing the setting for ‘suppressible’ stories. Everyday fender-benders and sideswipes aren’t newsworthy simply because they are all too common. Crashes involving fatality are usually reported locally, especially when there are multiple fatalities; likewise where what has occurred is unusual —vehicles that crash into buildings, commuters stuck overnight on unplowed highways are examples. Here, thankfully, a burning car is an unusual occurrence.

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