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PARIS (Reuters) - France will deploy extra police and keep vandalism statistics under wraps on New Year's Eve to fight what authorities say has become an annual "sweepstakes" of disaffected youths competing to see who can burn the most cars.
Youths in depressed suburbs of French cities have been torching hundreds of vehicles on New Year's Eve and Bastille Day since the early 1990s. Police say the annual rite has turned competitive, with youths tracking the news in the first days of the new year to see which neighbourhood did the most damage.
"I have decided to put an end to the competition, the sweepstakes, and will longer publish the number of burnt vehicles," Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said this week, adding that publishing statistics encouraged vandalism.
Opposition politicians described the move as an attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government to cover up the violence.
"The government tends to eliminate unfavourable indicators. The interior minister has been publishing trumped-up statistics for years, and now Hortefeux is going even further," Socialist deputy Delphine Batho, a security specialist, told Reuters.
Last year, the Interior Ministry said 1,137 cars had been torched, a 30 percent rise on 2008. French media reported at the time that several thousand cars had been burnt.
Nearly 54,000 police officers will be deployed across France, a rise of some 6,000 compared to normal New Year's Eve staffing levels, and additional command posts set up in several cities, Hortefeux said on Friday.
The image of burning cars remains particularly evocative in France in the wake of urban riots in December 2005. Sarkozy came to power in 2007 promising to quell violence, but crime and vandalism have inched up in the past year.
Arson in France's "sensitive urban areas" rose by 17.2 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to a 2010 study by the Observatory of Sensitive Urban Zones. In 2009 a total of 12,874 cars were burnt, it reported.
(Reporting by Thierry Leveque and Nick Vinocur; Editing by Peter Graff)