Old Media and Burning Cars in France

The media coverage of the fall 2005 riots in France’s banlieues made the image of burning cars into an international icon of French urban mayhem. But in fact the deliberate burning of cars has been a large-scale and endemic phenomenon in the banlieues for many years now — even in times of relative “calm.” It is so widespread and common that it appears to be a kind of urban pastime.

The French daily Le Figaro claims, however, to have discovered that the problem is at least worse somewhere else. Thus, in an article titled “The Burning of Cars is More Frequent in the United Kingdom than in France” in its Wednesday edition, the paper announced that it had “obtained” an “official report” of the British government demonstrating the reassuring claim. World Politics Review has also “obtained” the report: namely, by downloading it from the British government site where it is freely available to the public here. It is curious that Le Figaro would make a mystery of the latter fact: as if it were trying to preserve the “old media” aura of exclusive access that has been rendered largely illusory nowadays by new communications technologies.

The title and tenor of the article is reminiscent of similar articles that appeared in the French press roughly one year ago, as the international media began to devote attention to France’s increasingly glaring homeless problem, and that claimed to reveal that this problem too was more severe elsewhere — notably, in the United States. Since, however, no effort was made by the publications to insure that the statistics cited used common definitions of homelessness — or even referred to the same period — the supposedly “comforting” comparisons were in fact meaningless. (For a similarly meaningless comparison from the New York Times, see my discussion here.) Thus — to take only the most basic source of discrepancies — persons who sleep in shelters are not counted as homeless in the official French statistics: according to the French statistics, they are merely “poorly housed” (mal-logé).

The current Le Figaro “scoop” — even leaving aside the fact that it is not a scoop — exhibits the same sort of weakness of analysis. One might have thought that the Figaro editors would be more circumspect about claiming that car arsons are more numerous in the U.K. than in France when citing a study that, as the details of the article make clear, only runs through 2002. This would have been especially advisable given that the paper could have just as easily “obtained” the most current fire statistics available from the British government: namely those for 2005. These show that the number of “deliberate car fires” in the U.K. for 2005 totaled some 39,600. This figure was down nearly 45% percent from the peak figure of 70,900 in precisely . . . 2002. According to figures cited by Le Figaro — without the naming of any source, but seemingly provided to the paper by the Ministry of Interior — the total number of cars deliberately set on fire in France in 2005 was 50,340. Again according to Le Figaro, the number for 2007 was 45,000. This latter figure, given that we are not yet three weeks into 2008, is presumably a very rough estimate at best.

An even cursory examination of the British study, moreover, shows that the context of the deliberate car burnings in the U.K. is entirely different. Apart from derelict vehicles, the bulk of the cars set on fire in the U.K. were found to be stolen vehicles purposely set on fire by the thieves in order to destroy DNA evidence. What is so shocking about the French car burnings for both foreign and French observers — or at least those of the latter who aren’t journalists at Le Figaro — is precisely their arbitrary or even “recreational” character: the fact that cars appear to be set on fire for the sheer nihilistic pleasure of destroying them. Thus, the number of incidents regularly increases on weekends and holidays. Some nearly 900 vehicles are reported to have been set ablaze, for instance, on New Years Eve alone. The Ministry of Interior initially released a far more modest figure (372) and was forced radically to revise its estimate when its figure was challenged by the radio station Europe 1.

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