Known since the nineties, the white van rumors reappeared in France and Belgium in 2019. How can we explain this spectacular return, which resulted in numerous incidents ? And why urban legends kidnappers are always represented circulating in a white van, in theses French speaking countries ?
An Old Rumor?
2019, Paris Suburbs
A rumor of kidnappers circulating in a white van at the side of public schools has emerged in Paris area suburbs during March 2019. A first incident is noticed by the French newspaper Le Parisien. Two men driving a white-van have been beaten up by a group of young inhabitants of the Grèves district in Colombes city after a false report. In the following days, the rumor spread in other suburb cities Romani community members are accused to be the alleged kidnappers.
2018, French Province
The previous year, similar rumors took place in French regions, firstly in Agen (Nouvelle-Aquitaine). In an email, a middle school principal alerted the pupils parents that a white van has been winessed in Agen’s streets, “with two men onboard, distributing candies to children”, as Sud Ouest, reported in its 20th of January edition. According to this local newspaper, the panic started from a false abduction rumor. Spread on social networks, the information created a “state of paranoïa” for three Le Passage’s teenagers. After seeing a white van close to their school, they decided to alert their principal. Despite the lack of information and witnesses, the principal transferred the information to the National Police and the Academic Inspection.
Close to Angers (Pays-de-la-Loire), a similar rumor spread at the end of the same month before being denied by the police forces. The rumor said that a man had tried to lure children with a 20 € bill to get them into his van, according to Le Courrier de l’Ouest.
In Gray (Bourgogne-Franche-Comté) a teenager pretended to be the victim of a failed abortion. She confessed later that she had invented everything.
Known since the 1990s in France and Belgium, these rumors are quite recurrent since the end of the 2010s years. A new epidemia has been reported by the press recently, localised in Belgium.
Why Kidnappers Circulate in a White Van?
Marc Dutroux and Michel Fourniret, “possessed a white van with which they kidnapped their victims”, Aurore Van de Winkel states. The two pedocriminal cases deeply choked both Belgian and French opinion. As the Belgian folklorist and urban legend specialist observes, “It’s the cheapest and best selling color in the market. […] It’s also a way to avoid unwanted attention, which is finally not the case today with theses persistent rumors.”
Black Volga (USSR)
In USSR, the Black Volga attracted the same kind of rumors, as Anna Kirzyuk and Alexandra Arkhipova noted in their interview for Spokus. Theses black cars were driven by the KGB agents or official members of the Party. The meaning of theses specific rumors were, therefore, more linked to the Stalinist repression during the Great Terror according to the Russian folklorists.
Phantom Clown (USA)
The rumors known as “Phantom Clown” (Brunvand, 2002), that spread in the USA during the 1980s and 1990s, are more similar to the 2018 French waves of abduction rumors. They staged clowns in ice-cream trucks trying to lure childrens around schools. Most of these rumors circulated amongst young childrens. None of the alerted adults has ever seen these mysterious clowns and their presence has never been proven (Bartholomew & Radford, 2012).
Two Kinds of Criminals
The intentions of the white van kidnappers vary from one version to another. However, the victims are always the same : children. These stories are universal. Sociologists Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard compare them to the “croquemitaine’s (the French bogeyman) cart which, in the European folklore, carry the bad children.”
We live in a society where children security is a high topic of concern. Barely mentioned and kind of taboo during the first part of the XXth century, pedophilia was in the 60s and 70s in France the subject of some ambiguous intellectual positions. But, thanks to the emergence of the victims voices, this situation changed. The 1990s decade is also marked by the huge impact of the Dutroux affair, especially in Belgium.
The 2019 rumors, widely spread in Paris suburbs, drew attention on the Romani community, accused of organ trafficking. These particular stories are part of the xenophobic rumors family. In these rumors, there is always an opposition between a “positive” social group – the rumor propagators – and a “negative” group, characterized by an ethnic or religious difference. This last group is often designated as scapegoat and accused of immoral acts. Depending of the cultural and historical context, different communities can play this negative role. Because of their nomadic life, Romanis are often accused of abduction. It was already the case in 2008, when a similar rumor embroiled Marseille.
“One is never too careful !”
These rumors are usually highly shared on social media because they alert us of an imminent danger. The sense of urgency is stronger than the facts checking. We do not want to take the risk of slowing the share of informations, even if its chance to be true is low. “When we talk about children safety, one is never too careful” as Sud Ouest newspaper said in 2018. The educational staff can play a significant role in that context by giving credence and legitimity to rumoral discourses. It was obviously the case in Agen. In their hypervigilance state, individuals can finally focus their attention on minor elements of their usual environment (like a white van parked somewhere) and analyse them as a warning sign.
Even if sharing a rumor is an act of protection, this act can sometimes have dangerous consequences. It was the case in Paris suburbs where the rumor caused lynchings events.
In these situations, authorities can use posts on social media to denied the rumor. Unlike the rumor, this denial is however seen as a cold information, if not a non-information as Jean-Noël Kapferer observed in Rumeurs (1987). Besides, the visibility of an information is directly link to its capability to generate interactions when it is shared on social media. It is why this communication exercice is less productive than authorities can imagine. Rumors tend to self-extinguish, because people get tired of them or because a new information replace the old one …
Until their reappearance. We can indeed observe the recent multiplication of these rumors. They are fueled, perhaps, by a strong feeling of insecurity and fragmentation, highlight by the Cevipof trust barometer. Analysing the last decade results of its annual survey, the Cevipof (Center of political researches of Sciences Po) conclude that even if French people continue to trust their friends and family, they declare to act with cautiousness when it comes to distant relationships and people unknown. It is also possible that social media increase the visibility of these rumors, previously spread on informal channels.
It should be noted here that a large majority of children disappear in France because they run away from their parents (97 %). About 1,5 % of childrens disappear because they are kidnapped by their parents, and the rest (1,5 %) of the disappearances are classified as “worrying disappearance” (728 cases in 2017) by the police services at the investigation’s time.
The danger highlight by the white-van rumors exists and its consequences can be tragic. But abductions caused by a stranger are, fortunately, very rare. Beyond their direct impact, the spread of these kind of rumor can exaggerated the perceived “stranger danger” in society – the idea that all strangers can be dangerous – despite more current problems encountered by a larger part of children : bad-housing conditions, educational problems or family abuses (Renard & Campion-Vincent, 2002). Problems that are surely more difficult to fictionalized, compare to the direct violence caused by a psychopath.