Why the French Set Cars on Fire Every New Year’s Eve

Alexandra Maloney
Dec 18, 2021 · 3 min read
We all have our own unique traditions around the holidays. You might bake cookies on Christmas Eve for Santa, play the dreidel game on Hanukkah, or pop a champagne bottle at midnight on Dec. 31. 
But, one holiday tradition you might not think to include on that list is one that happens every New Year’s Eve in France—setting cars on fire. This form of car damage impacts hundreds of cars every year, but the tradition’s unique history and evolution definitely makes for an interesting story. 
What started as a form of protest quickly turned into hundreds of cars being burned each year in France.

How did the car burning start?

According to Auto Blog, the tradition of burning cars started in the 1990s in France. The act began as a form of protest from low income people in small towns outside the major cities of France. During the time period, low income people began burning their cars to garner media attention in order to bring awareness to their conditions and rebel against the government. 
As the media caught wind of the large arsonist acts and gave them coverage, the tradition began to spread throughout the country. As the years went on, the tradition crept into more urban city centers in France. By the early 2000s, people in both small towns and large cities of France—like Paris and Marseilles—were waiting until dark on Dec. 31, then taking to the streets to burn as many cars as they could get their hands on. 
Damaging cars turned into a game of sorts throughout France. People began eagerly awaiting the police to post the exact amount of cars burned in each location the night before on the morning of Jan. 1. If your city burned the most cars it meant, in many ways, you’d “won” the tradition. 

How many cars are burned?

In recent years, as an attempt to stop the tradition and eliminate the competition, police stopped posting the exact numbers of cars burned, so cities wouldn’t try to beat a record or catch up to another place the next year.
Although these numbers are no longer posted by official sources, they still do make their way around France. According to The Drive, in 2017, 935 cars were burned. In 2018, the number of cars burned rose to 1,031. In 2019, the number peaked at a whopping 1,457 cars burned. Last year in 2020, the number dropped significantly with just 861 cars burned throughout France on New Year’s Eve. 
These numbers were obtained by Europe 1 from anonymous sources in the French government. 

The impact of coronavirus

The impact of coronavirus on this tradition is particularly interesting. Due to the virus, France, along with many other countries, was already imposing strict curfews and lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus during the year. In December of 2020, France had a strict 8 p.m. curfew throughout the country, and those who broke it were subject to a fine of over $150.
While burning cars was never legal, last New Year’s Eve, even being out on the street after dark was illegal, too, which might have deterred some people from participating in the tradition. Plus, others might have wanted to limit their exposure to the virus by staying inside. Perhaps these two factors combined are why the country saw a 41% decrease in the number of cars burned. 
However, this year France does not have a lockdown nor curfew in place for Dec. 31. So, what do you think? Will the number of cars burned continue declining, or will we see a sharp increase this year? 

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