The French are burning more cars again

2014 was a bad year for burning.
2014 was a bad year for burning.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
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It happens every New Year’s Eve. Across France, hundreds of cars are set on fire in a blunt expression of emotions that are difficult to pin down: Anger, dissatisfaction, even exuberance could be in the mix.

This year (link in French) saw an increase in the numbers for the first time in five years: 945 cars burned. Apparently seeking to play down that figure, the French interior ministry originally reported (French) that only 650 cars were burned, but then confessed that this referred only to those deliberately set alight, not including those that caught fire or were damaged by the ensuing flames.

Acts of violence or vandalism give opponents of the government an easy opportunity to criticize it. And this is a particularly politicized year in France. A general election in April will see a clash between the incumbent Socialist party and challengers from both the traditional and extreme right. The far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, which has been surging in popularity, was quick to put out a statement (French) on the car burnings, condemning the “laxity” of past decades. In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland has been gaining ground too, Berliners have also begun burning more cars (link in German): 372 in the year 2016, up from 186 the year before.

On the same day that Le Pen issued her statement, Le Parisien, a French newspaper, and its sister title Aujourd’hui announced they would not commission opinion polls for the upcoming election. The editor, Stéphane Albouy, cited pollsters’ failures to predict the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election in the US, and said he wanted his papers to concentrate on candidates’ manifestos instead of on a “horse race.”

While unconnected, the burning of cars and rejection of polls are both in some way symptoms of this time in political history. When opinion polls are unreliable, are car-burnings a better barometer of the public mood? When traditional politicians are so distrusted, is car-burning a more effective way than voting to express one’s discontent? And when the media are so distrusted, could rejecting the “horse race” in favor of real issues be a way to regain credibility?

The burning of cars on New Year’s Eve is a fairly recent tradition, but setting vehicles alight has been a big feature of riots and clashes between young people and the police in France since at least the 1980s. That’s according to anthropologists who were writing at the time of particularly severe riots in France in 2005. During the Sarkozy administration, the ministry stopped reporting New Year’s Eve burnings, but the current government of François Hollande reinstated the practice. It will be interesting to see whether the statistics are still being collected next New Year’s Eve, and what they will show.