Crime | January 6, 2021 6:00 am

How Do the French Celebrate the New Year? They Light Cars on Fire.

Looking at how the pyromaniac tradition began, and how it continued during the pandemic

Car fire in France on New Year's Eve
Firefighters attempt to extinguish a burning car on December 31, 2006.
FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images

At 12 o’clock on New Year’s Eve, what were the sounds you heard? Was it a bottle of champagne popping in your kitchen? Fireworks going off at the neighbor’s house? Or was it, as it is for many people throughout France, the crackling, roaring and exploding of automobiles that have been set on fire? 

This year, 861 cars were set on fire across France to mark the new year, according to Europe 1. While that scope of destruction would lead you to believe some tragedy has occurred — it certainly doesn’t seem very French, at least from an outsider perspective — it’s actually a tradition that goes back years.

“The phenomenon began several decades ago in the eastern French city of Strasbourg and the region of Alsace around it,” wrote The New York Times in 2013, citing a director of nonlife insurance in France. The outlet added that “French sociologists over the years have attributed the burnings to things like urban violence, insecurity caused by the financial crisis, and government policy that overlooks relatively poor and marginalized immigrant communities.”

Whatever the actual catalyst, the tradition has kept on despite government efforts to stymie the arson. Those efforts are also likely the reason you probably haven’t heard of it. The French government and citizens want you to know they have the best wine in the world, the best cheese, the best sartorial panache, not the most hatchbacks burned to a crisp in a single evening. 

As the Times detailed in its look at the phenomenon, French authorities have waffled over the years on whether or not to release the specific number of vehicles burned, worrying that those tallies could lead to competitions between hooligans in neighboring towns. But The Drive, which reached out to a Frenchman for some firsthand knowledge, concludes that the obfuscation tactic “has failed.”

The outlet also has some photos from their French friend if you’re looking for photo evidence of the pyromania aftermath. This is no joke. 

There is, however, one upside to this year’s count: due to the pandemic and the current curfews in France, 861 burned cars was actually much lower than a typical year. According to Europe 1, 1,457 automobiles were torched just a year before.

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