Were they “French” or “Muslims” torching cars on New Year’s Eve?

January 5, 2010
burned cars

Cars burned on New Year's Eve piled up in Strasbourg car pound, 1 Jan 2010/Jean-Marc Loos

Another New Year’s Eve, another round of car torchings in France. And another wave of reader complaints that we don’t brand these arsonists as Muslims.  Robert Basler, who handles reader feedback, got so many emails in reaction to a Paris story on the New Year’s torchings that he did a post on his blog Good, Bad and Ugly: Reader reaction to Reuters news.

These readers are convinced the people torching the cars were Muslims and this was an important fact we were hiding from them.  “Just who do you think you are protecting, let alone informing, by leaving on that tiny little detail?” asks a reader named Hoss. Reader K.K.S. writes: “How many of the “youths” were Muslim? My guess is most… What side is Reuters on? My guess is… It isn’t the right one, the French one or the American one!!! Reuters starts sounding more like Al Jereeza (sic) everyday!” A comment signed Dean asks: “Were the youths who burned those cars in France Muslims? Isn’t that relevent (sic) to the story?”

What echoes through these comments is the force of conviction without proof.  The only point I agree with is that calling these people “youths” — following the French practice — doesn’t tell us much about them. We could have said “vandals” or “delinquents” or “arsonists,” which they certainly were. But how do they know the perpetrators were Muslims or that a religious tag was relevant? As far as I can see, these readers don’t live in France, speak its language, know its society and politics or visit its rough suburbs, as our reporters do. They may not know that there are no official statistics on religious or ethnic backgrounds in France, so the statement they want us to make cannot be backed up with authority. If despite all this, they have solid proof to back up their claims, they should send it in and we’ll consider it.

Rioters and police face off in Clichy-sous-Bois, Oct. 29, 2005

Riots in northern Paris after two youths died in police chase, 29 Oct 2005

We’ve been down this road before. During the suburban riots in late 2005, some media (and many blogs) talked about “Muslim riots” or a “Paris intifada” and asked why we didn’t jump on this bandwagon. We discussed that in a blog post here, spelling out that there were no specifically Islamic factors or demands in the protests, the areas were mixed neighbourhoods rather than Muslim ghettos and the unrest was an outburst by a multiethnic underclass against a society that has sidelined it. Sure, there were Muslims among them — but there were non-Muslims as well. What value do we add to a news story by using a questionable religious label to describe a political and socio-economic phenomenon?

The traditional New Year’s Eve car torchings have some other factors not mentioned in that earlier blog post. One of them is insurance fraud. There are estimates that about 20% of the torchings are actually arranged by owners who pay street gangs to torch their old cars so they can cash in on the insurance. The Paris daily Le Monde says they pay them a few dozen euros and can be reimbursed up to 4,000 euros. A 2008 law made it even easier to claim this refund. If our story had gone deeper into motives, this would have been an interesting one to mention.

Car burned in student protest

Car burned in student protest against new labour law, 28 March 2006

Another element that readers outside of France do not seem to understand is that political violence is as French as brie and baguettes. It’s not just poor people in the suburbs who lash out in anger then they feel the system has let them down. Farmers have attacked trucks bringing in cheaper produce from Spain or Italy. Trade unions have clashed with police trying to break up their road or rail blockades. Militant ecologists  destroy fields of genetically modified crops. Students lash out against changes in education or labour laws. Street demonstrations occasionally end with some protesters trashing shops and cafes. So these car torchings are not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a larger pattern of political violence that goes back at least until the French Revolution.

The idea that we want to “protect” Muslims from bad publicity hardly holds water when you go back through some stories and posts the Paris bureau has done. On this blog alone, we’ve had posts about a French Muslim football team refusing to play gays, the problem of  forced marriages in the Muslim community, a Muslim man who divorced his new wife for not being a virgin, the failures of the French Muslim Council or cases when Muslim men forbid doctors to treat their wives. If the Muslim angle is relevant, we mention it.

It’s hard not to conclude that people who send comments like those copied above want us to stop reporting on events in their complexity and start profiling people with biased simplicity. Is that what our readers want?

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