(asked by Leesa, from the US and currently living in France)

I have a question out of genuine curiosity….
Why do the French burn cars… and why is this done as a common practice or sort of “tradition” on New Year’s Eve in Strasbourg???
What’s the draw for people to go out and burn all those cars? Why do people get away with this/why isn’t it enforced more???
So, first, I don’t want people to be confused by the title, French people don’t burn cars just for kicks, like: “I don’t know what to do today… Oh! Check this car. Why don’t I torch it just to pass the time?”
I know that for people from countries where riots are non-existant and where cars are more important than people for some, the act of burning a car may seem unthinkable.
Truth is, in a riot, cars are the easiest thing to burn: they’re just there, in the street, exactly where you’re busy rioting. And you’re mad, you want to destroy something, possibly set it on fire, and guess what, there’s this object, dozens of them, full of flamable parts, with gas and just sitting there, almost begging to be burned.
In other words, don’t park where there’s a riot.
Be careful, I do mean Riot here, I know some people, especially Americans have a tendency to confuse Strike, Protest and Riot, especially when they talk about France (I blame CNN and other news networks for that).
And this is exactly what happened in Strasbourg. There were some riots and, coincidence, they took place on New Year’s Eve. It was in the late 90’s or early 2000’s I’m not exactly sure because I lived in the US then, and most of my memories of the New Year’s Eves that took place during my twenties are blurred at best (with one or two black-outs here and there). Also I couldn’t find much detail on the web, if anybody has more and cares to share…
Since then, almost as a souvenir of those riots, to celebrate their anniversary, and because people tend to do crazy and stupid stuff on New Year’s Eve, and because French people are becoming angrier and angrier, cars get burned on December 31st. Only in Strasbourg at first, but nowadays in other major cities as well, as some sort of competitions in between cities take place to know which one will burn the most cars.
That being said, keep in mind a few factors:
  • Cars get burned every night for a bunch of different reasons, but they seem to interest the media only on New Year’s Eve. And while it’s true that many more cars are burned on that night (it goes from a few dozens in the country on a normal night to a few hundreds on New Year’s Eve), I also think that the media played a role, especially in the spreading of the “tradition” to other cities. They wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it in Strasbourg, I don’t think kids from other cities’ ghettos would have done it too.
  • There, I said it, the ghetto. Because, don’t get mistaken, those car burnings don’t take place in random streets, most if not all of them are in the poor neighborhoods, the projects, the places that the French government created a few decades ago to lodge the immigrants and that it has totally abandoned since. There are more and more riots in those neighborhoods (remember the Fall 2005 riots) simply because these neighborhoods are slowly becoming worse than Compton, LA and people living there feel excluded by the rest of country, and guess why do they feel this way? Because they are.
And why do people get away with this and why is it not enforced more?
Well, simply because you can’t put a cop behind every car (although I know the current government would love that, behind every citizen too)… And also, because as previously said, most cars that burn do it in the poor neighborhoods and the government doesn’t care about poor neighborhoods, especially the current one. Believe me if cars in rich neighborhoods were being burned, the government wouldn’t just do its show on TV and then move onto something completely different…
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  8 Responses to “Why do the French burn cars?”

  1. Your answer was excelent; you went to the point and clarified many stereotypes without sounding like kissing France's butt. I liked it a lot.

  2. Thanks.

  3. Your 'answers' always crack me up!

  4. Thanks.

  5. I like your chronic; it is usually well written and make good points and was light-hearted with plenty of common sense. However, lately, it has become too political. Maybe you should rename your blog "Ask a Frenchman who does not like the current administration". I guess in France, like in the US, politic always manages to rot everything.

  6. Dominique, I don't believe one can get "too political." Most things are political by nature, this topic is political by nature. People don't burn cars because they're bored, they do it because they're pissed, because they're unhappy in the society they live in. This is political.

    Actually, it is because too many people believe things are "too political" or are not interest in politics and whatnot that the people in power have their hands free to do what they want and screw the people over more and more. Look at what has happened to the US during the past 10 years. Look at what's happening in France.
    And while I despise the current administration as it's responsible for France becoming a shameful country, I don't think it's responsible for the car burnings (although it's using them for its own agenda). As I said, this started about a decade ago (give or take a couple of years) and the ghettoization of the suburbs has been a 40 year-long process. As you can see, we're far from "I hate the curent administration".

    Finally, the questions I get dictate whether this blog is going to be political or not, and believe me I'm more than happy to get these types of questions that allow readers to see what France is really about. I started this blog because I was tired to see so many foreigners thinking that France was entirely like the touristy streets of Montmartre, or worse, like the Faubourg-St-Honoré and the Champs-Élysées.

    Too bad if I crush some people delusions in the process.

  7. Keep on Frenchman I'm with you .

  8. also, it is convenient for insurance to burn your car at new year s eve, instead of selling it

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