Adding Fuel to the Fire

The spark was a collision between a motorbike and a police car in a neighborhood north of Paris. Two teenagers died, and for days afterward the world once again turned its gaze upon France's troubled suburbs. Two nights of intense rioting left 119 police officers injured, and two schools and a library in flames. The images called to mind the 2005 riots, which spread to 300 neighborhoods across France over three weeks. Yet despite reports from some of the foreign press that the riots were raging for a third night, a police-union spokesman explained that only 138 cars had burned that night. And that, he said, is normal.

Car fires are among the most enduring symbols of urban unrest in France, yet torchings are routine in some parts of the country. Last year some 44,000 vehicles were set ablaze, compared with half that figure in the United States. What explains this strange phenomenon? As far back as the late '70s joyriders in the rougher suburbs torched their stolen rides after they were done with them. Elsewhere it's part of festivities. The first morning of 2007 revealed 396 smoking wrecks nationwide, and the offense is so common that when the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced the figures, he boasted there were "no notable incidents."

But intriguingly, the burning car is also a clue to understanding the dynamics of France's more troubled banlieues—and how best to change them. When the housing projects were conceived in the 1960s, they were utopian marvels meant to encourage docility, says Jacques Donzelot, a sociologist at the University of Paris X-Nanterre who specializes in urban planning. To an extent greater than anywhere else in Europe, they followed the ideology of Le Corbusier's 1943 Athens Charter, which argued that housing, commerce and industry ought to be compartmentalized into separate zones linked by highways.

Housing was placed far from the cities, and new cities were built in fields far from old city centers. Everyone had work, and transport was an afterthought—there was busing to the factories.

At first, different classes mixed in the projects. But middle-class families left once they had saved enough for a house with a garden. Laborers soon followed, and immigrant families were invited to fill the large empty apartments. But then work dried up. "People needed initiative, had to go get the jobs," says Donzelot. "It was no longer about docility or stability, but dynamism. But the structure of the projects was the opposite." Poor public transit, says Sophie Body-Gendrot, a political scientist at the Sorbonne Paris-IV, inspired some to steal cars and then burn them to hide the evidence. Cars burned in still greater numbers after police broadened their use of DNA evidence under Sarkozy's Interior Ministry.

As frustration grew, the layout of the typical French housing project—tall towers with large windows, surrounding vacant spaces—made car burning a spectacular method of protest, marking territory and achieving respect. "It's very spectacular. Everyone sees it because it happens at night," says Sebastian Roché, a sociologist at France's National Center of Scientific Research. And the message lingers, he adds, leaving burn marks in the pavement. In some French housing projects, cars are often repeatedly burned in designated spots. (One in Strasbourg's Neuhof quarter was widely nicknamed the "Autogrill.") And such is the response to the fires that in 2005 the France 3 television channel stopped reporting numbers of torched cars after rioters boasted of competition between housing projects to see who could set the most vehicles ablaze. Last year a bus fire badly disfigured a woman, and one of the young men charged with the crime reportedly gave this explanation: "In Paris, they burn and they get on TV."

Now policymakers are trying to address the underlying tensions that help stoke the fires. In 2004, France began a nine-year, €42 billion urban-renewal project to renovate buildings, restructure neighborhoods and introduce greater social and class mixing. Next month Sarkozy and the junior minister for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, a controversial leftist and former leader of the banlieue women's rights group Neither Whores Nor Submissives, will unveil a new "Marshall Plan" for the suburbs. Its contents are a matter of speculation, but it is expected to cover three major areas: employment, education and breaking open the housing-project enclaves with a fund for new public transit. But such plans have been presented before. The first, in 1982, was a response to the Minguettes riots, one of the first major suburban uprisings in France. In the years to come, similar projects were dubbed the "Marshall Plan." The result? A situation that continues to be highly incendiary.