2020 ended in a fiery mess for the 861 cars set ablaze across France on New Year's Eve. Burning cars is a decades-old tradition, especially in major cities, but coronavirus-related restrictions kept last year's number low.
Setting a car on fire is an unusual way to ring in the new year. It started in the 1990s, largely as a form of protest on the outskirts of big cities, but the attention it received from media outlets helped turn it into a contest. Folks in major urban centers began torching as many cars possible on December 31, usually after dark, and waiting for government officials to publish numbers on January 1 to see which city burned the most vehicles. Paris and Marseilles — cities opposed geographically, culturally, and in sports — normally alternated on top of the podium.
Alarmed, the government urged law enforcement officials not to publish city-specific numbers, and it later stopped providing a national count in a bid to quell the rivalry, but statistics float to the surface via leaks. The total for 2020 was obtained by Europe 1 from anonymous sources inside the French government. And while 861 is an immense number, it represents a 41% decrease compared to New Year's Eve 2019, when 1,457 cars were roasted across France.
Arsonists aren't losing interest in the barbecues, and they're not running out of flammable liquids. After weeks of strict lockdowns, France began enforcing a nationwide 8 p.m. curfew in early December 2020, so burning a car after dark on New Year's Eve was doubly illegal. We speculate that the curfew — and the 135 euro ($166) fine handed to those caught breaking it — partly explains the significant drop in fires. Clearly, bringing that number down to zero is impossible; even closing gas stations on December 31 hasn't put a big dent in the count.
Cross-country rivalries are only part of this infernal equation. Law enforcement officials point out many motorists take advantage of the annual unrest to commit insurance fraud — some attribute up to a third of the fires to fraud, and thieves see it as a convenient way to get rid of stolen cars without drawing too much attention to themselves.