Thursday, 27 December 2012

How many cars will be torched this New Year's Eve in France? Answers in January...

Manuel Valls
President François Hollande is expected to insist upon a government reshuffle in the New Year, and the names of up to half-a-dozen underperforming ministers - including PM Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has taken a lot of flak over the last three months - are being regularly touted in the press. One name has not cropped up in any predictions however - that of Interior minister Manuel Valls.

Valls is proving to be one of the most effective ministers in the current government. He enjoys the majority support of the public, including the grudging respect of a substantial proportion of those who support opposition parties, and his latest announcement is likely to further improve his popularity.

Reversing the precedent set by the last two Interior ministers he has said that he will release precise figures on the number of cars torched by vandals on New Year's Eve this year as well as the numbers of arrests for car-burning, and he justifies his decision by the reasoning that he does "not want to give the impression that I am hiding something" Valls' courageous decision is to be applauded.

The burning of cars on July 14 and New Year's Eve has been a national sport for French vandals for many years, and each year would bring its lot of statistics for the press and public to mull over. It became apparent over time that gangs of vandals in many French cities were very well aware of the substantial press and TV coverage which was being devoted to their antics, and this inspired them to redouble their efforts to burn as many cars as possible in attempts to to get even more coverage and enjoy the kudos of being the most successful car-burning gang in the country. Videos of cars burning were commonplace on Youtube and Daily Motion, with many of them going viral in France.

Things changed under Nicolas Sarkozy however, and his Interior minister Brice Hortefeux announced in 2010 that no figures would be given for that year's July 14 or New Year's Eve celebrations in an attempt to starve the vandals of publicity and thus reduce the 'incentives' for burning as many cars as possible. But he did, as promised, give the global figure of cars burnt in France during 2010 as soon as his ministry had collated the data, in January 2011. That figure was a whopping 43,701.

Claude Guéant replaced Hortefeux shortly afterwards and he went even further than his predecessor. Not only did he give no figures for days of celebration he went back on his promise to announce a global figure for 2011 when he announced that year's crime figures in January 2012.

This tactic allowed the government under Sarkozy to sweep the figures under the carpet and pretend that the phenomenon didn't exist. And because it didn't exist officially, at least in statistical terms, almost nothing was done to find out why it was so widespread, and nor was anything done to address the social and other problems which had led to it in the first place. This policy was much like that which still prevents detailed figures being given on phenomena such as racism. The reasoning goes that if governments have no figures to defend or explain they would be dispensed from the dirty and difficult task of actually having to do something to address the problem.

That is why Manuel Valls is right to be taking this bold step. It may appear to be a risky move but if it leads to a two-pronged effort to make many more arrests whilst at the same time doing more to address why the phenomenon is so widespread it will surely pay off in the long term.

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