Bullfighting ban withdrawn in France, a last bastion for the sport

Competitors try to pluck the ribbons adorning the local cow's head in a Camargue-style battle.  (Clemence Losfeld for The Washington Post)
Competitors try to pluck the ribbons adorning the local cow’s head in a Camargue-style battle. (Clemence Losfeld for The Washington Post)

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VAUVERT, France — The sound of horns clattering against the metal enclosure could be heard as hundreds of spectators filed into a makeshift arena in a pine grove.

While adults enjoyed bottles of wine, children jumped across 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 seemed relaxed as he worked the crowd before the bout.

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

Although this type of spectacle is no longer available in Spain and Latin America, and although polls show that 77 percent of people in France want to end bullfighting, the sport is growing in popularity in the south of France. On Thursday, France’s National Assembly was expected to vote for the first time on the proposed ban. But opponents of the ban tried to block the vote with a wave of amendments, and the far-left lawmaker who proposed the ban withdrew it.

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

Parliament’s rights commission, backed by members of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, recommended against the ban last week. “What will be the next regional tradition we ban?” legislator Marie Lebec asked during the initial debate.

On Wednesday, Macron suggested to an audience of mayors that the ban would not be implemented anytime soon. “We have to move towards reconciliation, exchange,” he said. “It’s not a priority right now. This issue needs to be approached with respect and consideration.

It was debated whether the French animal welfare law should be amended remove exemptions for bullfights and cockfights where they are “continuous local traditions”.

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Critics question the concept of bullfighting as French. Although bull-running has been recorded in France since 1289, the bloody Spanish-style corrida, critics say, was introduced in the 19th century for the wife of the Spanish-born Napoleon III.

For a time, pageants flourished throughout France. The largest bullrings were built in the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris and other cities. But it is only in the south of France, near the border with Spain and along the Mediterranean Sea, that bullfighting continues today, attracting some 2 million spectators each year, according to the National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures.

Animal rights activists say the practice has no place today. They say that bulls that are stabbed repeatedly in the neck and shoulders die slowly and painfully. Between 800 and 1,000 bulls are killed in French competitions each year.

Once, when Natalia Valentine attended a bullfight, she said that she was so shocked that she ran out of the arena. “After each stab, the bull grew. It was horrible,” said Valentine, 56. “I didn’t understand why people came to see it.”

But she is among the minority who want to speak out against the practice in her hometown of Nîmes, France’s de facto bullfighting capital. When activists across the country staged anti-bullfighting demonstrations last weekend, fewer than 50 people showed up outside the city’s Roman amphitheater, where local bullfights take place. Activists struggled to attract pedestrians’ attention by holding up posters of dead bulls. Their speech was sometimes drowned out by a motorcyclist who deliberately revved his engine.

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

Mont-de-Marsan mayor Charles Deyot complained to Agence France-Presse that the far-left lawmaker who pushed 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 and the periphery — was behind the “yellow vest” protests that rocked French politics in 2018 and 2019. This sentiment may have been on the minds of lawmakers when they considered banning bullfighting.

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“If there was a referendum, the ‘yes’ vote to ban bullfighting would probably win,” admitted Frédéric Saumade, an anthropologist who supports the contests. But he has a duty to the French government to uphold regional rights and traditions, even if the wider public does not.

Festival-goers in Vowert last weekend said bullfighting was part of their identity and they weren’t letting it be taken away easily.

“That’s who we are. And that’s how I want my children to live,” said Jade Sauvayol, 22. She added that bullfighting is part of “the first step of socialization here.”

“It brings people together,” said Benjamin Coulier, co-president of the French Bullfighting Youth 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, a country that exported its bullfighting tradition 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, court rulings and the withdrawal of sponsors also closed bullrings in Bogotá and Mexico City, among others, this year.

Bullfighting in France seems to be going in the opposite direction. In Nîmes, the number of spectators at contests has increased this year compared to 2019, although cinemas and nightclubs are still a third emptier than before the pandemic.

Alexis Chabriol, a 21-year-old bullfighter, said he grew up in a family opposed to competition. But he decided to visit one to form his own opinion. “I thought it was really beautiful,” he said, despite all the blood.

Spanish-style corrida is the most widely known form: bullfighters use colorful capes to attract the bull’s attention, usually with the goal of killing, while impressing onlookers with their daring.

But bullfighting doesn’t have to end in blood. In fact, there was no blood at all at Vowert Arena last weekend.

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The bulls that compete in corrida fights are expensive, so organizers tend to book the real shows in the thousands, not the 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 when they left the ring.

Then came the Camargue competition, named after the region where it is practiced. A cadre of contestants competed to pluck ribbons attached not to the horns of a bull, but to the horns of a local cow. She kicked the grass and mud, moaning and chasing after the men. Sometimes they jumped out of the way just seconds before the cow crashed into the arena’s metal barriers.

Under the proposed law, fighting in the Camargue would not be banned. They tend to be more dangerous to humans than animals. By the end of the Vauvert festival, while some men were limping, no one was seriously injured. An ambulance was not required on the scene.

Polls suggest that in French cities where bullfights take place, more than 60 percent of the population may be against the killing of bulls. But bullfighting advocates in the south of France 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 that defends bullfighting and other traditions.

Lionel Lopez came to the Wovert festival with his 6- and 11-year-old sons, who lowered a pink cape into the arena in an attempt 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, shielding them from the more extreme versions of bullfighting. But after he went to the game, his youngest son asked to see “a real bullfight.”

Introduced to the tradition at an early age, Lopez said, his 6-year-old now “sees the beauty of the show.”

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