Ban on bullfighting lifted in France, one last bastion of the sport

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Competitors in a Camargue-style battle attempt to pluck ribbons that decorate the head of a local cow.  (Clémence Losfeld for The Washington Post)
Competitors in a Camargue-style battle attempt to pluck ribbons that decorate the head of a local cow. (Clémence Losfeld for The Washington Post)

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VAUVERT, France – The sound of horns clanging against a metal fence could be heard as hundreds of spectators arrived at a makeshift arena in a pine grove.

While adults indulged in bottles of wine, children jumped across an inflatable amphitheater on a plastic bull with blood-red eyes. Soon Charles Pasquier would meet a real bull. But the 26-year-old bullfighter appeared relaxed before the competition as he worked the crowd.

Ten years ago, an event like this would not have attracted many people his age, he said. But now “a huge amount of young people are coming back,” he marveled. “There is a wave of renewal.”

Although such spectacles are on the decline in Spain and in Latin America, and although opinion polls show that as many as 77 percent of the population in France want an end to bullfighting, the sport is experiencing an increase in popularity in the south of France. On Thursday, the French National Assembly was expected to vote for the first time on a proposed ban. But opponents of the ban moved to block the vote with a wave of amendments, and the far-left lawmaker who proposed the ban withdrew it.

While 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, recommended a ban last week. “What will be the next regional tradition that we will ban?” asked legislator Marie Lebec during the opening debate.

On Wednesday, Macron suggested to an audience of mayors that there would not be a ban anytime soon. “We have to move toward a settlement, an exchange,” he said. “From where I stand, it is not a priority at the moment. This topic must develop with respect and consideration.”

Up for debate was whether France’s animal welfare law should be changed to remove exemptions for bullfighting and cockfighting in places where they are “uninterrupted local traditions.”

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

For a time, competitions flourished all over France. Large bullrings were built in Bois de Boulogne park in Paris and in other cities. But it is only in southern France, near the border with Spain and along the Mediterranean, that bullfighting continues today, drawing about 2 million spectators each year, according to the National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures.

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

The one time Nathalie Valentin attended a bullfight, she said, she was so shocked that she ran out of the arena. “After each stab, the bull stood up. It was horrible,” said Valentin, 56. “I didn’t understand why people had come to see it.”

But she is in the minority willing to speak out against the practice in her hometown of Nîmes, France’s de facto bullfighting capital. As activists organized anti-bullfighting demonstrations across the country last weekend, fewer than 50 people turned up outside the city’s Roman amphitheater, where the local bullfights take place. The activists struggled to attract the attention of pedestrians as they held up posters of dead bulls. Their speeches were at times drowned out by a motorcyclist deliberately revving his engine.

Earlier in the day, a pro-bullfighting demonstration a few blocks away had drawn about eight times as many people. In many cities, the demonstrations were beneficially organized or attended by mayors, indicating broad public support.

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

A similar feeling – about Paris vs. the periphery — was behind the “yellow vest” protests that rocked French politics in 2018 and 2019. And that sentiment may have been on lawmakers’ minds as they considered the bullfighting ban.

“If a referendum were to be held, it is likely that the yes vote for a ban on bullfighting would win,” acknowledged Frédéric Saumade, an anthropologist who favors the competitions. But to him, the French government has a duty to uphold regional rights and traditions, even if the wider public does not support them.

Festival goers in Vauvert last weekend maintained that bullfighting was part of their identity – and they weren’t going to let it be taken away easily.

“That’s how we are. And that’s how I want my kids to live,” said Jade Sauvajol, 22. Bullfighting, she added, is part of “the first step in socialization here.”

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

With the failure of the bullfighting ban, southern France has cemented its status as one of the sport’s last bastions. In Spain, the country that exported its bullfighting traditions to France, the number of competitions has almost halved in recent years, and the practice has been abandoned in the region of Catalonia. In Latin America, a combination of court rulings and the withdrawal of sponsors this year 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 busy an increase in spectators heading to the competitions this year compared to 2019, even as cinemas and nightclubs remain up to a third emptier than before the pandemic.

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

The Spanish-style corrida is the most well-known form: the one with bullfighters who use colored capes to attract the attention of the bull, usually aiming to kill, while impressing the audience with their daring.

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

The bulls that participate in corrida fights are expensive, so organizers tend to reserve the real spectacles for audiences of thousands rather than hundreds. Instead, Pasquier performed in a fake Spanish bullfight known as a “tienta”, which is also used to train and select bulls for the big fights. Neither he nor the bull was injured when they left the ring.

So come Camargue competition, named after the region where it is practiced. A cadre of contestants competed in trying to pluck ribbons attached to the horns of not a bull, but a local cow. She kicked up grass and mud as she moaned and chased after the men. Sometimes they jumped out of the way just seconds before the cow crashed into the arena’s metal barriers.

Camargue fighting would not have been banned under the proposed law. They tend to be more dangerous to the human participants than to the animals. At the end of the Vauvert festival, while some men limped, no one appeared to be seriously injured. An on-site ambulance was not required.

Opinion polls show that in the French cities where bullfights are held, more than 60 per cent of residents may be against bulls being killed. But southern France’s bullfighting advocates say there is no room for compromise. They want to preserve the tradition in all its forms.

“Death is part of life,” said festival organizer Thomas Pagnon, who heads a youth organization in defense of 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 to get the animals’ attention.

For the boys, these were neither the first nor the most violent fights they had seen. Lopez said he originally planned to slowly wean his sons by shielding them from the most extreme versions of bullfighting. But after taking part in a fake competition, his youngest son asked to see a “real bullfight”.

After being introduced to the tradition at an early age, Lopez said, his 6-year-old now “sees the beauty of the spectacle.”

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