Bullfighting ban lifted in France, a last bastion for the sport

Competitors in a Camargue-style fight try to pick ribbons that decorate the head of a local cow.  (Clemence Losfeld for The Washington Post)
Competitors in a Camargue-style fight try to pick ribbons that decorate the head of a local cow. (Clemence Losfeld for The Washington Post)


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

While adults feasted on bottles of wine, children bounced across an inflatable amphitheater on a plastic bull with blood red eyes. Soon Charles Pasquier would be up against a real bull. But the 26-year-old bullfighter appeared relaxed before the bout as he worked the crowd.

Ten years ago, an event like this wouldn’t have attracted many people his age, he said. But now “an enormous amount of young people are returning”, he marveled. “There is a wave of renewal.”

Although these kinds of spectacles are popular in Spain and Latin America, and although polls show that as many as 77 percent of people in France want to end bullfighting, the sport is experiencing a surge in popularity in the South of France. On Thursday, France’s National Assembly was due to vote for the first time on a proposed ban. But opponents of the ban tried to obstruct the vote with a wave of amendments, and the far-left legislator who proposed the ban withdrew it.

While the withdrawal doesn’t rule out a vote in the coming months, even some animal rights groups admit the odds of a ban are slim as politicians across the political spectrum fear a backlash from rural voters.

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

On Wednesday, Macron suggested to an audience of mayors that a ban would not come any time soon. “We have to work towards a reconciliation, an exchange,” he said. “From where I stand, it’s not the priority right now. This topic should be continued with respect and attention.

There was discussion about whether the French animal welfare law should be changed to remove exemptions for bullfighting and cockfighting in places where they are “continuous local traditions”.

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

For a while, competitions flourished all over France. Large arenas were erected in the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris and in other cities. But it’s only in the south of France, near the border with Spain and along the Mediterranean Sea, that bullfighting continues today, drawing about 2 million spectators annually, according to the National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures.

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

The one time Nathalie Valentin attended a bullfight, she said, she was so frightened that she ran out of the arena. “After each sting, the bull reared. It was awful,” says Valentin, 56. “I didn’t understand why people came 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 staged anti-bullfighting demonstrations across the country last weekend, fewer than 50 people showed 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 sometimes 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 protest rallies were organized or attended by mayors, indicating widespread public support.

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

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 as they considered banning bullfighting.

“If a referendum were 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 he says the French government has a duty to uphold regional rights and traditions, even if the general public does not support them.

Festival-goers in Vauvert insisted last weekend that bullfighting is part of their identity – and that they would not be taken away just like that.

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

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

With the failure of the bullfighting ban, the South of 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 abolished in the Catalonia region. In Latin America, a combination of court rulings and sponsor withdrawals also forced arenas to close this year in Bogotá and Mexico City, among others.

Bullfighting in France seems to be going the other way. Nîmes registered an increase in the number of spectators attending the matches this year compared to 2019, even though cinemas and nightclubs remain up to a third emptier than before the pandemic.

Bullfighter Alexis Chabriol, 21, said he grew up in a family that opposed the competitions. But he decided to attend one to form his own opinion. “I really liked it,” he said, despite all the blood.

The Spanish-style corrida is the form best known: that which features bullfighters using colored capes to attract the bull’s attention, usually for the purpose of killing, 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 in the Vauvert arena last weekend.

The bulls participating 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 mock Spanish bullfight known as a “tienta”, which is also used to train and select bulls for the big fights. Neither he nor the bull were injured as they left the ring.

Then came the Camargue competition, named after the region where it is practiced. A cadre of contestants competed to pick ribbons attached not to a bull’s horns, but to a local cow. She kicked up grass and mud as she chased the men with a groan. Sometimes they jumped out of the way seconds before the cow slammed into the metal barriers of the arena.

Camargue fighting would not be prohibited under the proposed law. They are usually more dangerous to the human participants than to the animals. By the end of the Vauvert Festival, while some of the men were limping, no one seemed seriously injured. An ambulance on site was not needed.

Polls show that in French cities where bullfights are held, more than 60 percent of residents may be against the killing of bulls. But the proponents of bullfighting in the South of France say there is no room for compromise. They want to preserve tradition in all its forms.

“Death is part of life,” says festival organizer Thomas Pagnon, who heads a youth organization defending 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 attract the attention of the animals.

For the boys, this was neither the first nor the most violent fight they had seen. Lopez said he initially planned to slowly acclimate his sons by protecting them from the most extreme forms of bullfighting. But after going to a mock competition, his younger son asked to see a “real bullfight.”

Lopez was introduced to the tradition at a young age and said his 6-year-old now “sees the beauty of the spectacle.”

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