940 Cars Torched in France in New Year Celebrations

Burning car
A firefighter extinguishes a burning car during New Year's eve celebration in Lille January 1, 2012. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

940 cars were set on fire across France by frenzied revellers as they welcomed the arrival of the New Year, according to France’s Interior Ministry.

The wave of arson - part of a bizarre and dangerous tradition frequently reported in mass celebrations as well as protests in the country - was actually a 12% improvement on last year’s New Year’s festivities when 1,067 cars were set ablaze. Despite government warnings, the act remains a popular to mark the passage of the old and the arrival of the new.

Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told French broadcaster BFM-TV that the car burning was most frequent in eastern France, as well as in the suburbs of Paris, particularly in the banlieues (ghettos) of Seine-Saint-Denis, which were the epicentre of riots protesting police brutality in 2005 resulting in the torching of more than 10,000 cars.

“There was not a single major incident,” Brandet said, attributing the fires to “binge drinking” and “public displays of outrage”.

There were a total of 308 arrests of would-be arsonists in this year’s New Year “celebrations” as opposed to last year, when 322 were detained for the same offence.

According to French daily newspaper Le Figaro, the average French driver has five days to report the incident if their car has been burned in the New Year revelries for their insurance company to cover the costs, while some contracts do not even cover car owners against being torched by a stranger because of how frequently it occurs.

Car torching has become a civil issue in France as the Ministry of Justice has also set a precedent for compensating victims of the crime themselves, if they are not able to afford insurance and have registered as low income (less than €25,000 a year).

On the other hand the dangerous custom has also given con artists an opportunity to make money by setting fire to their own cars or arranging for someone else to do it for them either for the purposes of insurance or welfare fraud.

According to local French newspaper Le Dauphiné Libéré in 2011 a man in Avignon, south eastern France, paid two of his friends to set his old BMW ablaze, in the hope he would claim a large sum in compensation which the three could split and start the new year all the better off.

After the three were found out all they had to split was a €100 fine and a court date for attempted fraud.

Insurers and law enforcement cite similar incidents as the reason for drivers whose cars are attacked by arsonist revelers to try and keep a record of as much as they can about the attacker and the details of the event in order to prove that their claim is indeed genuine.