PARIS — Hundreds of empty, parked cars go up in flames in France each New Year’s Eve, set afire by young revelers, a much lamented tradition that remained intact this year with 1,193 vehicles burned, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday.
His announcement was the first time in three years that such figures have been released. The conservative government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy had decided to stop publishing them in a bid to reduce the crime — and not play into the hands of car-torching youths who try to outdo each other.
France’s current Socialist government decided otherwise, deeming total transparency the best method, and the rate of burned cars apparently remained steady. On Dec. 31, 2009, the last public figure available, 1,147 vehicles were burned.
Like many countries, France sees cars set on fire during the year for many reasons, including gangs hiding clues of their crimes and people making false insurance claims.
But car-torching took a new step in France when it became a way to mark the arrival of the New Year. The practice reportedly began in earnest among youths — often in poor neighborhoods — in the 1990s in the region around Strasbourg in eastern France.
It also became a voice of protest during the fiery unrest by despairing youths from housing projects that swept France in the fall of 2005. At the time, police counted 8,810 vehicles burned in less than three weeks.
Yet even then, cars were not burned in big cities like Paris, and that remained the case this New Year’s Eve. Minister Valls said the Paris suburban region of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the 2005 unrest started, led the nation for torched cars, followed by two eastern regions around Strasbourg.
For some, the decision to tell the public how many cars have been burned on New Year’s Eve is a mistake.
Bruno Beschizza, the national secretary for security matters in Sarkozy’s UMP party, said on iTele TV that publishing the numbers motivates youths to commit such crimes. “We know that neighborhoods compete,” he said. Gang rivalries center on who can torch the most cars, with claims made on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, he said.