France, the last bastion of bullfighting
Bordeaux may be the capital of the French wine industry, but visit it in the summer and you can be entertained with a different type of Bordeaux. Blood. I’m not talking about the broken noses of the city’s Rugby Top 14, Bordeaux Bègles. I mean bulls blood, spilled on the sand on a sun-scorched afternoon. One of the less publicized tourist attractions in the Bordeaux region is the bullfight.
Think bullfighting and you’ll probably conjure up a shimmering arena of glitter in the Spanish city of Pamplona, but the south of France has a bullfighting tradition dating back to the year point – or 1289, at least. That year, the running of the bulls was recorded for the first time in Bayonne, on the Bordeaux coast. Hemingway, in Death in the afternoonhis classic tale of bullfighting, was very sniffy about everything bullfight north of the Pyrenees, writing that: “Potential spectators are warned not to take bullfights held in France seriously.” The irony: currently, bullfighting is slowly dying out in Spain — Catalonia has effectively banned the sport — while in France, bullfight is alive and, if not charging directly ahead, standing on its hooves.
Indeed, the country is on the way to becoming the bullfighting center of the world: around 1,000 bulls a year are slaughtered in French arenas. According to the pro-bullfighting organization, the National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures (ONCT), two million people attend bullfight in France each year. As any of these French aficionados will tell you, probably at length, the Gallic viewer is more discerning than the Spaniard, preferring slow, classic wraps over theatrical stabbing. Ole!
The French craze for bullfighting is at odds with the country’s penal code which, under article 521-1, prohibits “cruel acts and serious mistreatment of animals”. But this is a nation where inheritance, heritage, is always the trump card. Thus, the penal code provides exceptions for bullfights – as it does for cockfighting – where there is an “uninterrupted local tradition”. After a presentation by the ONCT, the Ministry of Culture listed bullfighting as part of France’s intangible cultural heritage in 2011. Last November, the French parliament, dominated by Macron’s LREM, voted to end the use of wild animals in live circus performances and bans mink farming, in new animal rights legislation. But he missed a ban on bullfighting.
Predictably – and even hoped – bullfighting is a red flag for animal rights activists. The Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA) has lodged complaints in towns where bullfighting is popular, including Bayonne – so far without success. Each time, “unbroken local tradition” beats the animal cruelty argument. Exactly what constitutes “uninterrupted” is a payday for lawyers; bullfighting in Gironde, the Bordeaux department, exists largely because of a campaign in the 1980s by aficionado Claude Mounic, who persuaded a court in Bordeaux that a 26-year hiatus from the sport was caused by the collapse of a stadium, which means that the sport remains “uninterrupted”: “the interruption cannot result from a material and fortuitous event”. This overturned a previous Bordeaux court ruling that local bullfighting had ceased to exist. Mounic went to court a dozen times to restore sport in Gironde.
The arena concerned was located in the suburb of Bouscat and hosted 10,500 spectators. It was so dilapidated that it was bulldozed to make way for a residential complex. Today, the local meeting place is in La Brède, which is one of the fifty or so municipalities organized in The Union of French bullfighting towns. Created in 1966, the UVTF was one of the main lobbyists behind the inclusion of bullfighting in the French intangible cultural heritage.
French supporters of bullfighting cite heritage, art and biodiversity (bulls bred for the ring are raised in the open air, because hardiness gives bulls “a savagery essential to their behavior in the arena”, according to the ‘ONCT). Then they cite heritage, again.
In the south of France, from the Camargue in the west, bullfighting is part of the fabric of life. You can sit in a coffee and hearing people discuss cattle lines all the way to the Ark until you want to throw them in the ring and feed them to the bulls. As much as The temperature could publish horse racing details, South West (250,000 copies sold daily), publishes details of bullfights in southern France and northern Spain. French supporters, generally wealthier than their Spanish counterparts, travel for bullfighting.
But the inheritance argument is, well, bullshit: the bullfight A form of bullfighting, where the creature is provoked and killed with swords, was imported in the mid-19th century from Spain, where the “sport” had begun in the slaughterhouses of Seville. For the south of France, with its self-aware “Spirit of the South”, the Spanish style bullfight represents resistance to Parisian centralism. It’s always like that. The stream bullfightSelf-conscious Hispanophilia and the use of Spanish jargon are two fingers to rule the Elysée. The South likes to kill each other with the Court. Ask the Cathars. Or the troops of the French Revolution whose “Marseillaise” bears the name.
Bullfighting is a trade across the Pyrenees; bulls bred in the Landes and in the Camargue — there are about forty licensees Association of French breeders of fighting bulls — are transported to the Spanish rings (a good bull will bring his owner €3000 for his 15 minutes of glory in a bullfight). Meanwhile, matadors appearing in French rings are largely Hispanic. No French matador entered the top 10 of the rankings until Sébastien Castella in 2005.
Anyone who writes about bullfighting must declare their skin in-game. I may herd cattle and sometimes shoot animals for pot, but I don’t drown kittens in a sack or pull spiders’ legs off for a larf. I am not a born bullfighting spectator. Every iota of sympathy I personally had for the bullfight started to fade when I first saw a pike stuck in a bull’s back; the more the bull bled, the more my desire to see the “show” bled. All the scholarly talk about the bravery of bulls, the grace of the matador, and what 41 famous defenders recently appointed “an art, culminating in the meeting of courage and honour” were shattered, with the bloodied body of the bull being dragged from the arena. When I think of my experience of bullfightI hear the famous anti-bullfighting song, Bullfighting , by French balladist Francis Cabrel. Written from the point of view of the bull, the chorus goes: Is this world serious?
Is this world serious? In the 21st century, a highly sensitive creature is provocatively stabbed and then shot for fun. Spanish-style bullfighting is pure and simple — a warmed-up Roman circus for the masses — and can’t last. According to a survey carried out by the independent polling institute IFOP for Brigitte Bardot Foundation 74% of French people are in favor of banning French bullfights which end with the slaughter of the bull.
It is therefore fortunate that the French bullfighting originally had non-violent roots. In the “Course Landaise”, the matador jumps acrobatically over and around the snorter; in the “Course Camarguaise”, men and women run trying to tear ribbons and pompoms from the horns of animals. Angry but at least alive, the bull is then put out to grass. According to the Anti-bullfighting Alliance, 76% of French people want to replace bullfights with alternatives from the Camargue and the Landes. I can’t say that all mocking of an animal constitutes a sport in my book, but ten out of ten bulls consulted prefer non-lethal bullfighting.
If you feel like it, there is no shortage of Course Landaise and Course Carmaguaise events this summer in the south of France – and at least they have the merit of being very French. These bullfights are often the center of festivities that draw thousands of people to the streets. Everywhere good red matter flows freely. Wine. Not bull’s blood.