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Firefighters tackle a blazing car during anti-Jewish violence in January

Saturday night in spring 2009, in a quiet corner of the Marais. Sounds of tumult and smashing. A pause. An ominous silence. Then, the first explosion. Gunshots? Gas? It's on the rue des Arquebusiers. A fire engine pulls up, the firefighters jump out, ready for action. They're stymied. They run in circles, shouting to each other like helpless civilians. Cars are burning in the narrow side street and they can't get near the roaring inferno. Seven cars in a row, popping like huge champagne corks. It takes an eternity before a bigger engine arrives. It has a huge hose but it's hours before the last flames are extinguished.

Torched cars are a familiar sight on the French landscape. Tens of thousands are burnt out every year. But this isn't video footage on the evening news. It's not the banlieue in 2005. It's very close and extremely scary.

By Sunday noon, municipal workers had towed away the ghostly skeletons and swept up the debris, baring deep scars in the asphalt. Three weeks later, the scene is a black gaping wound. The stone kerb is cracked and chipped, as if it were made of clay. Metal awnings are buckled and blistered, the wooden façades are burnt away, revealing melted wires and pipes. A period street lamp is gutted. A thick coat of black soot reaches up to the wrought-iron balconies.

Apart from one laconic article in the daily le Parisien, the incident was not considered newsworthy in France. The international readership of the atlasshrugs.com newsblog knew more from my on-the-spot coverage than people living nearby. I was tipped off about another big fire at the Résidence Madeleine Béjart, a city-owned retirement home on rue de la Perle, five minutes' walk from Arquebusiers. That fire started in a decorative alcove on the façade and charred the ceiling of the wide portico. In some places, it's completely burned away.

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