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France sees 850 cars torched on Bastille Day but why do they do it?

The very French tradition of burning cars on the national July 14th holiday is very much alive and well with some 850 vehicles torched at the weekend, but where does this tradition come from?

France sees 850 cars torched on Bastille Day but why do they do it?
Burning cars is something of a tradition in France, albeit a much hated one. Photo: AFP

A total of 845 cars were torched across France on Friday and Saturday night, France’s Interior Ministry has reported.

Police have arrested 237 individuals, including 92 minors, for wreaking havoc in the Paris area, with 183 taken into custody.

In Montreuil in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, a fifteen year old was arrested for carrying explosives in his backpack, which included fireworks, equipment to make a bomb, a bottle of acid, an empty plastic bottle and pieces of aluminum.

Two policemen suffered burns in a separate incident in Seine-Saint-Denis after three rioters threw Molotov cocktails at them. All of the attackers have been arrested, French TV channel LCI reported. 

In the department of Val-de-Marne south east of Paris, about 30 people tried to crash a firefighters' ball without going through security checks, then launching Molotov cocktails and other projectiles at the crowd and injuring four firefighters in the process. Four people have been remanded in custody. 

SEE ALSO: Looters, violence and road accidents tarnish World Cup party

Why do they burn cars in France again?

Burning cars is something of a tradition in France, albeit a much hated one by authorities and car owners.

Cars are often set ablaze whenever there is an outbreak of social disorder, as seen in the 2005 riots when hundreds of vehicles were torched.

But there are a few dates in the calendar year when the tradition is marked.

The most common torching dates are New Year’s Eve and in July and August, particularly on Bastille Day on July 14th when youths mark the annual fête nationale with their own firework shows.

“Vehicle fires are often associated with a context of riots and urban violence. It can also be a ‘game' to break the monotony, or it could be motivated by vengeance after a violent arrest. Or it could just be to get rid of a car used in a crime or as an insurance scam.” Christophe Schulz, of France's official crime data agency ONDRP, told Le Parisien newspaper.

The custom of setting vehicles alight on New Year's Eve reportedly began in the east of the country, around Strasbourg, in the 1990s, in the the city's poorer neighbourhoods.

'Resentment of the French identity'

It was then quickly adopted by youths in cities across the country.

French sociologist Michel Wieviorka said: “It should be noted that burning cars is not necessarily a militant act.

“It is first of all about showing one's anger and dissatisfaction, but also about asserting one's autonomy, one's ability to get out of the daily struggle. In the same way, we want to draw the attention of the media to say: “Me too, I exist … Me too, I party, my way.”

Gérard Mauger, a French sociologist from the CNRS think tank said the typical profile of those who burn vehicles is a youth, who has recently left school with no qualifications and little hope of finding work. They are drawn into the life of street gangs.

“The mass unemployment among young people without qualifications only favors the increase of this phenomenon [of burning vehicles],” said Mauger.

French criminologist Sebastian Roché says it's hard to analyse the burning of cars and the frequent attacks towards French police because those behind them rarely talk about their motives. However the fact they occur during national celebrations like July14th suggest their anger is a message to the state and a reflection of a “resentment against the French identity”.

“These are acts of delinquency,” said Roché.

“There is a desire on their part for conflict and destruction, whereas these celebrations should be the symbol of national unity,” he added;

“It is difficult to go much further in the analysis of these movements because their authors do not express specific claims. It is not a political movement or a demonstration, but these people want to express a rage and anger, so they attack symbolic events. “

Other analysts say one of the reasons why the custom continues is that the youths want the media attention on the number of cars burned in their suburb and are in a kind of competition with other neighbourhoods around France to see who can torch the most vehicles.

This was the reason previous government's in France have declined to reveal the number of vehicles burned for fear of stoking the problem.

In fact, this year there’s been a drop in the number of cars torched on France’s national day, down from 897 in 2017 to 845 in 2018. 

The ONDRP revealed in Januart that the number of cars burned each year has fallen by 20 percent since 2010.

FOCUS: What's behind the famous French tradition of torching cars?

The main reason for the fall according to the ONDRP is that the media take less interest now in the mass burning of cars, which means there may be less of a thrill for the arsonists.

Authorities have previously refrained from reporting on the number of torched cars on New Year's Eve after it was discovered that a district-by-district breakdown was fuelling destructive competition between rival gangs.

Added to that is that extra police are regularly deployed in sensitive areas on specific nights of the year to try to prevent the blazes.

The stats also showed that the departments most affected by the phenomenon were Haute-Corse in Corsica, Isere to the south east which includes Grenoble, and Oise, to the north of Paris.

Rural areas of France are much less affected than urban areas.

The car owners most affected are generally in the more hard-up neighbourhoods.

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From lizards to water, eco-bumps snag Tesla’s giant Berlin car factory

In the green forest outside Berlin, a David and Goliath-style battle is playing out between electric carmaker Tesla and environmental campaigners who want to stop its planned "gigafactory".

From lizards to water, eco-bumps snag Tesla's giant Berlin car factory
Tesla's gigafactory outside the doors of Berlin. dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

“When I saw on TV that the Tesla factory was going to be built here, I couldn’t believe it,” said Steffen Schorch, driving his trusty German-made car.

The 60-year-old from Erkner village in the Berlin commuter belt has become one of the faces of the fight against the US auto giant’s first European factory, due to open in the Brandenburg region near Berlin in July.

“Tesla needs far too much water, and the region does not have this water,” said the environmental activist, a local representative of the Nabu ecologist campaign group.

Announced in November 2019, Tesla’s gigafactory project was warmly welcomed as an endorsement of the “Made in Germany” quality mark – but was immediately met with opposition from local residents.

Demonstrations, legal action, open letters – residents have done everything in their power to delay the project, supported by powerful
environmental campaign groups Nabu and Gruene Liga.

Tesla was forced to temporarily suspend forest clearing last year after campaigners won an injunction over threats to the habitats of resident lizards and snakes during their winter slumber.

READ MORE: Is Germany’s Volkswagen becoming ‘the new Tesla’ as it ramps up e-vehicle production?

And now they have focused their attention on water consumption – which could reach up to 3.6 million cubic metres a year, or around 30 percent of the region’s available supply, according to the ZDF public broadcaster.

The extra demand could place a huge burden on a region already affected by water shortages and hit by summer droughts for the past three years.

Local residents and environmentalists are also concerned about the impact on the wetlands, an important source of biodiversity in the region.

Tesla Street

“The water situation is bad, and will get worse,” Heiko Baschin, a spokesman for the neighbourhood association IG Freienbrink, told AFP.

Brandenburg’s environment minister Axel Vogel sought to play down the issue, saying in March that “capacity has not been exceeded for now”.

But the authorities admit that “the impact of droughts is significant” and have set up a working group to examine the issue in the long term.

The gigafactory is set to sprawl over 300 hectares – equivalent to approximately 560 football fields – southwest of the German capital.

Tesla is aiming to produce 500,000 electric vehicles a year at the plant, which will also be home to “the largest battery factory in the world”,
according to group boss Elon Musk.

In a little over a year and a half, swathes of coniferous forest have already been cleared to make way for vast concrete rectangles on a red earth base, accessed via the already iconic Tesla Strasse (Tesla Street).

German bureaucracy

The new site still has only provisional construction permits, but Tesla has been authorised by local officials to begin work at its own risk.

Final approval depends on an assessment of the project’s environmental impact – including the issue of water.

In theory, if approval is not granted, Tesla will have to dismantle the entire complex at its own expense.

But “pressure is being exerted (on the regulatory authorities), linked to Tesla’s significant investment”, Gruene Liga’s Michael Greschow told AFP.

In early April, Tesla said it was “irritated” by the slow pace of German bureaucracy, calling for exceptions to the rules for projects that help the environment.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier agreed in April that his government “had not done enough” to reduce bureaucracy, lauding the gigafactory as a “very important project”.

Despite Germany’s reputation for efficiency, major infrastructure projects are often held up by bureaucracy criticised as excessive by the business community.

Among the most embarrassing examples are Berlin’s new airport which opened last October after an eight-year delay and Stuttgart’s new train station, which has been under construction since 2010.

Brandenburg’s economy minister, Joerg Steinbach, raised the possibility in February that the Tesla factory could be delayed beyond its July planned opening for the same reason.

SEE ALSO: Tesla advertises over 300 jobs for new Gigafactory near Berlin