France's Less Joyous New Year's Tradition

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PARIS -- Many of France's New Year's traditions, including Champagne, oysters and foie gras, are popular well beyond the country's borders. But there is another -- car burning -- that does not travel so well.

New Year's Eve has long been tarnished by the practice, as unruly urban youth set ablaze hundreds of cars and motorcycles to usher in the new year.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said late Tuesday that 1,193 vehicles had been burned on New Year's Eve, mostly in urban areas, including 209 in the Paris region, though none in the city itself. What might come as a surprise is that the number is not considered by the French government to be particularly high.

"There's been no notable change in cases of arson involving cars and motorbikes in the last few years," Mr. Valls, a member of President François Hollande's Socialist Party, said at a news conference.

The overall number of vehicles burned was in line with the 1,147 on the night of Dec. 31, 2009, the last time the government announced the figures. More than 40,000 vehicles are burned each year in France, Mr. Valls said Monday on RTL radio, calling it "an intolerable form of violence against property."

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.

Those conditions, of course, apply in many industrialized countries. And yet the arson attacks remain a distinctly French tradition.

The phenomenon began several decades ago in the eastern French city of Strasbourg and the region of Alsace around it, according to Stéphane Pénet, director of nonlife insurance at the Fédération Française des Sociétés d'Assurances, an industry group.

"Now the tradition has been exported to other regions of France," he said. "It's a stupid tradition."

The decision to announce the number of arson attacks was itself controversial. Mr. Valls said he was speaking in the name of "the truth due to the French people," a reference to the decision by former President Nicolas Sarkozy's government three years ago to suppress the data in the hope that it would keep juvenile delinquents in French towns from trying to outdo one another.

During the autumn 2005 riots that rocked some of Paris's more volatile suburbs, more than 8,800 cars were burned. At the time, French television censored images of the car-burning so as not to encourage the practice.

One area that figured in those riots, the department of Seine-Saint-Denis that encompasses parts of Charles de Gaulle Airport, led all regions in cars burned on New Year's Eve, with 83.

Bruno Beschizza, a member of Mr. Sarkozy's U.M.P. party with responsibility for security issues, derided the decision to publicize the data, saying Wednesday in a statement that Mr. Valls "had taken the risk of reigniting the competitions between areas and between rival gangs to see who can burn the most vehicles."

Not all of the cases are simple arson attacks. Some are joy riders or car thieves covering their tracks. Mr. Pénet said unscrupulous car owners have taken advantage of the phenomenon to cash in on their insurance policies.

"We estimate that less than 20 percent of the vehicles are burned for insurance fraud," he said, "but it is significant."

He said about 85 percent of cars carry fire insurance, with an average payout of €5,000 per burned car. With 40,000 cars burned annually in France, that works out to about €170 million per year. While that is a lot of money, Mr. Pénet said, it is but a small part of the €60 billion in payouts French auto insurers make each year. And while it means everyone pays higher premiums, it does not add much to car insurance in absolute terms, he said.

"It's very visible in terms of delinquency, as a societal phenomenon," he said. But from the point of view of the insurers, "it's not that important in the grand scheme."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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