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The ban on bullfighting lifted in France, the sport’s last bastion

Competitors in a Camargue-style fight attempt to tear off the ribbons that adorn the head of a local cow.  (Clemence Losfeld for The Washington Post)
Competitors in a Camargue-style fight attempt to tear off the ribbons that adorn the head of a local cow. (Clemence Losfeld for The Washington Post)


VAUVERT, France – The sound of car horns against a metal enclosure could be heard as hundreds of spectators arrived in a makeshift arena in a pine forest.

While the adults indulged in bottles of wine, the children bounced in an inflatable amphitheater on a plastic bull with blood red eyes. Soon, Charles Pasquier will face a real bull. But the 26-year-old bullfighter appeared relaxed ahead of the contest as he got the crowd working.

Ten years ago, an event like this wouldn’t have attracted many people his age, he says. But now “a huge number of young people are coming back,” he marveled. “There is a wave of renewal.”

Although these types of shows are on the decline in Spain and Latin America, and although polls show that up to 77% of French people want bullfighting to end, the sport is experiencing a resurgence in popularity in the south of France. On Thursday, the French National Assembly was due to vote for the first time on a proposed ban. But opponents of the ban decided to stymie the vote with a flurry of amendments, and the far-left lawmaker who had proposed the ban withdrew it.

Although the withdrawal does not rule out a vote in the coming months, even some animal rights groups admit the chances of a ban are slim, as politicians across the political spectrum fear a backlash from rural voters.

A parliamentary law commission, backed by members of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, spoke out against a ban last week. “What will be the next regional tradition that we will outlaw?” asked lawmaker Marie Lebec during the initial debate.

On Wednesday, Macron suggested to an audience of mayors that there wouldn’t be a ban any time soon. “We have to go towards a conciliation, an exchange,” he said. “From where I stand, it’s not the priority at the moment. This subject must progress with respect and consideration.

The debate was whether France’s animal welfare law should be changed remove exemptions for bullfights and cockfighting in places where these are “unbroken local traditions”.

Critics question the notion of bullfighting as inherently French. Although there is a record of bullfights in France in 1289, bloody Spanish-style bullfighting, critics note, was imported in the 19th century for the benefit of the Spanish-born wife of Napoleon III.

For a time, pageants flourished across France. Important arenas were erected in the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris and other cities. But it is only in southern France, near the border with Spain and along the Mediterranean, that bullfighting continues today, attracting around 2 million spectators each year, according to the Observatory. national of bullfighting cultures.

Animal rights activists say the practice has no place in modern times. Bulls, they say, who are repeatedly stabbed in the neck and shoulders, die slowly and painfully. Between 800 and 1,000 bulls are slaughtered each year in French competitions.

The only time Nathalie Valentin attended a bullfight, she says, she was so shocked that she ran away from the arena. “After each stab, the bull reared up. It was horrible,” said Valentin, 56. “I couldn’t understand why people came to watch it.”

But she is among the minority who are willing to speak out against the practice in her hometown of Nîmes, France’s de facto bullfighting capital. When activists staged anti-bullfighting protests across the country last weekend, fewer than 50 people showed up outside the city’s Roman amphitheater, where local bullfights take place. Activists struggled to get the attention of pedestrians as they held up posters of dead bulls. Their speeches were sometimes muffled by a biker deliberately revving his engine.

Earlier in the day, a pro-bullfighting protest a few blocks away drew about eight times as many people. In many cities, rallies in favor were organized or attended by mayors, suggesting broad public support.

The mayor of Mont-de-Marsan, Charles Dayot, complained to AFP that the far-left legislator who pushed the vote “in a very moralizing tone, please explain to us, from Paris, what is good or bad in the south”. ”

A similar sentiment – about Paris versus the periphery – was behind the “yellow vest” protests that rocked French politics in 2018 and 2019. And that sentiment may have been on the minds of lawmakers when they considered banning bullfights.

“If a referendum were to take place, it is likely that the yes to the ban on bullfighting would win,” acknowledged Frédéric Saumade, an anthropologist in favor of competitions. But for him, the French government has a duty to defend regional rights and traditions, even if the general public does not support them.

Festival-goers at Vauvert last weekend said bullfighting was part of their identity and they weren’t easily taken away.

“That’s how we are. And that’s how I want my children to live,” says Jade Sauvajol, 22. Bullfighting, she adds, is part of “the first stage of socialization here”.

“It brings people together,” said Benjamin Cuillé, co-president of the French bullfighting youth union.

With the failure of the ban on bullfighting, the south of France asserted itself as one of the last strongholds of the sport. In Spain, a country that has exported its bullfighting traditions to France, the number of competitions has almost halved in recent years, and the practice has been abandoned in the Catalonia region. In Latin America, a combination of court rulings and withdrawal of sponsors this year has also forced the closure of bullrings in Bogotá and Mexico City, among others.

Bullfighting in France seems to be going in the opposite direction. Nîmes has seen an increase in the number of spectators going to competitions this year compared to 2019, even as cinemas and nightclubs remain up to a third more empty than before covid-19.

Bullfighter Alexis Chabriol, 21, says he was raised in a family opposed to competitions. But he decided to attend one to form his own opinion. “I found it really beautiful,” he said, despite all the blood.

Spanish-style bullfighting is the best-known form: that where bullfighters use colorful capes to attract the attention of the bull, usually aiming to kill, while impressing the public with their audacity.

But bullfighting contests don’t have to end in bloodshed. In fact, there was no blood at all last weekend in the Vauvert arena.

The bulls that compete in bullfights are expensive, so organizers tend to reserve the real shows for thousands of spectators rather than hundreds. Instead, Pasquier took part in a mock Spanish bullfight known as “tienta”, which is also used to train and select bulls for big fights. Neither he nor the bull were injured when they left the ring.

Then came the Camargue competition, named after the region where it is practiced. A group of participants competed trying to pluck ribbons tied to the horns not of a bull, but of a local cow. She kicked up the grass and the mud moaning and chased after the men. Sometimes they would get out of the way just seconds before the cow crashed into the metal barriers of the arena.

The Camargue fights would not have been prohibited by the bill. They tend to be more dangerous to human participants than to animals. At the end of the Vauvert festival, while some men were limping, no one appeared seriously injured. An on-site ambulance was not necessary.

Polls show that in French towns where bullfights take place, more than 60% of residents may oppose the killing of bulls. But bullfighting advocates in southern France say there is no room for compromise. They want to preserve tradition in all its forms.

“Death is part of life,” said festival organizer Thomas Pagnon, who heads a youth organization advocating for bullfighting and other traditions.

Lionel Lopez came to the Vauvert festival with his 6 and 11 year old sons, who lowered a pink cape into the arena, trying to attract the animals’ attention.

For the boys, it was neither the first nor the most violent fighting they had seen. Lopez said he originally planned to slowly get his sons used to it by protecting them from the more extreme versions of bullfighting. But after going to a mock contest, her youngest son demanded to see a ‘real bullfight’.

Having been introduced to the tradition from an early age, Lopez said, her 6-year-old “now sees the beauty of the show.”


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