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Bullfighting comes under attack in France

31 October 10 08:26
A French bullfighter

Bullfighting has a loyal following in France - but as David Chazan reports, the sport is coming under strong pressure from animal rights groups.

Think of bullfighting and you naturally think of Spain, but the controversial blood sport is also popular in parts of southern France.

Since a vote to ban it in the Spanish region of Catalonia from 2012, French animal welfare groups have been stepping up their campaign to get bullfighting outlawed in France as well.

But some towns in the south are planning to stage more bullfights because they're hoping to attract fans from Spain.

In Manduel, outside Nimes in southern France, hundreds of spectators are packed into the stands at a small village bullring.

They tense visibly and fall silent as the matador goads the black bull with flourishes of his red cape, and the bull snorts and lowers his head to charge.

The sense of gladiatorial drama is heightened by the music coming over the PA system - brassy, Spanish-sounding melodies with a French touch. At one point, a few bars of the Marseillaise are played.

"This is an important tradition which is part of our culture," says Brigitte Dubois, president of the bullfighting association of the nearby town of Nimes.

'Barbarian'

Although bullfighting originated across the border in Spain, it took root in France a century and a half ago, partly because of an influx of Spanish immigrants.

Wherever you go in this part of France, you see posters for bullfights - and the crowd in Manduel is loving every moment, undeterred by the knowledge that a few hundred metres away, there's a protest going on.

"I think the death of a bull in the ring is much more noble than in a slaughterhouse," says Mrs Dubois. "If you ban bullfighting then you should stop eating meat altogether."

But the demonstrators gathered nearby say that bulls are tortured in the ring before being put to death.

"It's not noble at all, it's a barbarian activity, and it's a real shame now to have that in the south of France," says one of the protesters, Jean-Pierre Garrigues, head of the committee against bullfighting.

The bull, he says, is a "herbivorous animal, a pacifist animal, and they want to kill it, to put it in pieces with a lot of blood, and it's awful".

Pressure for a ban

The campaign against bullfighting in France isn't as strong as the anti-hunting lobby has been in Britain.

But protesters chanting "Down with bullfighting" are turning up more often outside arenas.

They've been encouraged by the recent vote in Catalonia, although the conservative opposition there is now challenging the bullfighting ban at the constitutional court.

Bullfighting fans in France argue that the ban in Catalonia has more to do with regional tensions in Spain than with concerns about animal welfare.

In theory, bullfighting is already banned in most of France, but it's allowed in areas where it's become a local tradition.

There are considerable economic interests in bullfighting in the south. About 100 bullfighting contests are staged each year, with around a thousand bulls dying in the ring.

But Jean-Pierre Garrigues says pressure is now building for a ban in France.

"We have 65 members of parliament on our side and there is a bill to abolish bull fighting in France, just like in Catalonia. The bullfighters are really afraid about that."

Art and skill

But aficionados won't give up easily. After the bullfight in Manduel, a woman who said she had never seen one before told me that she had found it less shocking than she had been led to believe.

"I don't see why this should be controversial," she said.

Other fans said they had enjoyed the corrida, but declined to comment on the calls for a ban.

"There's nothing wrong with this," one man said. "To us it's like an art, and when you see the skill of the matadors and think about the risks they're taking, where's the problem?"

Brigitte Dubois says the concerns of animal welfare groups are misplaced.

"I love animals perhaps more than the protesters," she says. "I can belong to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and at the same time like bullfights. It's not incompatible at all."

'Modern incongruity'

Her views are typical of bullfighting fans. But even here in the south, growing numbers of people are now speaking out against what they see as a gruesome hangover from an earlier era, when animal welfare seemed less important.

In June two MPs who presented a bill to parliament to ban bullfighting said ending the practice was a question of France's honour.

"Bullfighting is an incongruity of our times," the bill reads. "In an already extremely violent world, adding violence to violence is disgraceful."

But in the stands of the bullring, the concerns about brutality seem far removed from local reality.

For the spectators here, the blood, dust and drama of the bullfight are part of a cherished way of life which they're determined to preserve.

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