The French light up New Year’s Eve: auto-da-fé takes on a whole new meaning

Proper illumination adds so much to festivities, especially at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Come this glorious season, London, New York, Rome, Paris and countless smaller places playfully wink at the world with millions of flickering lights arranged in elaborate and often beautiful patterns.

One can almost suspend a gagging effect at the sight of those hideous Ferris wheels in London’s South Bank or Paris’s Tuileries – even they look pretty all lit up. And behind the Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, normally so ugly and intrusive, has every bone and rib beautifully silhouetted in high-wattage lamps.

The French do have a highly developed aesthetic sense. That’s probably why the tradition of lighting things up on New Year’s Eve is faithfully maintained throughout the country, Interior Minister Manuel Valls proudly declared yesterday.

Specifically, 1,193 cars were burned on 31 December, 2012, painting the sky in various shades of red and yellow, thereby providing a welcome contrast to midnight-blue.

How does this number compare with last year’s? We don’t know, for former president Nicolas Sarcozy decided not to publish such figures. He thus adopted the Soviet stratagem for dealing with crime statistics: keep them under wraps, and Boris is your uncle – no figures, no crime.

The last time this particular statistic was made public was on New Year’s Eve 2009, when 1,147 vehicles were burned. The number of torched cars has thus grown at roughly the same rate as the French economy during the same period. It takes a deeper and more knowledgeable economic thinker than I am to establish exactly why the two curves move in parallel. It’s sufficient for my purposes to observe that they do.

It has to be said that the French don’t always burn cars simply to add to the festivity of an occasion. Sometimes they do so to express displeasure with something or other.

For example in the autumn of 2005 youngsters from housing estates burned 8,810 cars in less than three weeks because… well, you tell me. My guess is that they were simply looking for something to do, what with the idea of getting a job never crossing their minds. To be fair, given France’s labour laws, their chances of finding employment would have been close to zero anyway.

If the same burning rate were maintained throughout the year, France would be tastefully decorated with 153,000 vehicular torches per annum. The side benefit would be less road congestion, but alas that isn’t to be. The fact that only about 40,000 such torches are lit testifies to the laudable restraint of France’s youths and an equally praiseworthy vigilance of its police.

This time the record for the greatest number of torches is proudly claimed – surprise, surprise! – by the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is by pure coincidence home to a large North African community. There is, I hasten to add, no causal relationship between the two facts whatsoever, and if you think there is I’ll report you to both the Deuxième Bureau and Scotland Yard.

In any case, we all know the poor youngsters aren’t to blame for this rather unorthodox way of celebrating New Year’s Eve. It’s all society’s fault or rather, if you listen to Sarkozy’s spokesman Bruno Beschizza, the fault of the present government.

To be more exact, he blamed the government not for this year’s auto-da-fé but for paving the way for future activities along the same lines. Publishing the figures this year, he said, was a tragic mistake, for this will encourage youngsters to outdo this year’s exploits in 2013.

Gangs, according to Mr Beschizza, compete with one another in many categories, including the number of cars they manage to set alight. Now that the government has established the target figure, they’ll be able to set their sights even higher.

I don’t know what he’s complaining about. Personally, I’m happy to see that the competitive spirit, so manifestly dormant in the mainstream economy, is still alive in France. To prove this point, four armed robbers broke into the Apple shop in the centre of Paris and stole €1,000,000 worth of gadgets. The police were busy watching the festivities in the Champs Elysées, thus creating a window of business opportunity, of which the robbers took such profitable advantage. There’s hope for the country yet.  








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