Cars burning in French streets has been a familiar site at protests for decades. What explains this particular "tradition" of public lashing out?
PARIS — Following a police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel M. during a traffic stop on Tuesday, France has been plunged into the kind of popular uprising and street clashes that we've seen elsewhere in the world against police violence. For the past three days, French media has shared images of the unrest and the kind of toll one might expect, including 875 arrests and 249 police officer injuries.
But if you're in France, there's one other statistic bound to be reported from the uprising: burned-out cars and other acts of arson. Indeed, police say that at least 2,000 cars were set on fire, and 3,880 other blazes were reported at the protests around the country. And that was just overnight between Thursday and Friday — hundreds, if not thousands of other fires were set the first two nights.
Yes, it would seem counting the number of burned cars after nights of social unrest has become something of a tradition in France. But why?
We've seen it regularly most recently five years ago at the months-long "yellow vests" protests aimed at the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Yet the world had its first real view of the car-burning phenomenon in 2005, during rioting that in some ways resembles the current uprising in the poorer outskirts of French cities. Back then, the young people around France protesting unemployment and police harassment wound up torching some 8,000 cars in three weeks.
Oddly, the practice is believed to trace back to something of a twisted "celebration." During the late 1990s, a trend of burning cars on New Year's Eve emerged in certain neighborhoods of the eastern city of Strasbourg. The car fires spread across France and acquired an almost ritualistic nature. These incidents coincided with other symbolic dates such as Bastille Day, on July 14.
He told me of his "pride" when the name of his district was mentioned.
Two French sociologists, Gérard Mauger and Michel Wieviorka, interviewed by France Info broadcaster in 2013 explained that the phenomenon evolved from a competition between suburb districts, trying to outdo each other in the number of times their district makes the headlines.
“There's a playful dimension to burning cars,” says Wieviorka. “For example, a young man I met in a working-class district of Strasbourg told me of his ‘pride’ when the name of his district was mentioned on a major television channel.”
The level of attention from the media is of course a factor. The sight of cars engulfed in flames on dimly lit streets captures interest and highlights the collective frustration experienced by a community in response to certain events.
“If it's not too shocking to say, it seems to me that this ‘French phenomenon’ is the result of cooperation between the media and the gangs living on the estates,” Mauger told France Info. “The media's announcement of the New Year's Eve car burnings exerts the performative effects of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the urban gangs, it is a guarantee of media coverage.”
Dec. 2018 during the Yellow Vests protests
Sathiri Kelpa/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Others have noted that cars are often burned after they have been used to commit crimes, and other times police vehicles and public transport is targeted — though the vast majority of the vehicles belong to innocent residents.
Sociologists note that the practice is a phenomenon in specific parts of France, and not the country as a whole. In addition, the burning of cars on New Year’s Eve is a practice that peaked in 2013, and has been steadily declining. On this past New Year's Eve, 690 vehicles were set on fire, compared with 874 the year before — a 20% decline.
The main reason for the decline is believed to be that the authorities began refraining from reporting the number of torched cars, and that the media stopped talking about them, according to France's National Observatory on Delinquency.
But looking this week at the streets from Paris to Marseille, Lyon to Strasbourg, setting cars on fire is a French tradition that'll be hard to stamp out for good.