Bullfighting is still as important in the south of France, waiting to spoil a good holiday
France is once again anguished by bullfighting. Like Scottish independence, the foxhunting ban and the relegation of Morecambe FC to Britain, the problem never quite goes away – then bursts to the surface when you’d rather wish it had he is not. This time, television journalist and left-wing MP Aymeric Caron has tabled a bill in parliament banning all bullfighting, to be considered this week.
Caron believes that bullfighting is “a despicable practice that dishonours us all”. He is not alone. A poll earlier this year suggested that 77% of French people were opposed. They include Anouk Aimée, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot and Pamela Anderson, so Caron has the right veterans on his side. Antis took to the streets in cities across France last weekend to support the bill, expressing their anger at what they see as a barbaric practice. The writer Christian Laborde suggested in The world that “arenas are very noisy cemeteries”.
The demonstrations were echoed by those of bullfighting supporters – more numerous it seems – decrying an attack on an essentially southern tradition by distraught Parisians. “The bullfighting (bull culture) is our identity, a living culture. Let’s be free to live with our traditions,” said Julien Dubois, mayor of Dax, a bullfighting city if ever there was one. He could apparently call on the support of Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane and former French prime ministers Lionel Jospin, Alain Juppé and Jean Castex.
The chase arrived in France in the mid-19th century, as part of the baggage of Empress Eugenie, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III. It spread mainly in the south, from western Provence to present-day Occitania and New Aquitaine.
He is, in fact, legally confined to these regions, and not just anywhere in these regions either. To organize a bullfight, a town or village must also demonstrate an “uninterrupted bullfighting tradition”. Bullfighting is thought to be cruel – the French penal code says so – but they’ve been doing it forever in the south, so let them. We will make an exception. So right now bullfighting is legal in Nîmes but not in Montpellier (where there haven’t been bullfights for years), let alone in, say, Lille in northern France.
I’m not a natural audience for bullfighting, just as I’m not for bear fighting, cockfighting, or heavyweight boxing. But I really fell in pursuit when, a very long time ago, I went to see Marie-Sara, then blonde and bullfighter on horseback of extravagant beauty, or rejoneadora as we say in aficionado circles. (The least irritating aspect of French bullfighting isn’t its exclusive use of Spanish.)
In the Roman arenas of Nîmes, Marie-Sara – then the world’s most famous bullfighter – was squeezed into the tightest costume possible and handled her horse with spellbinding skill and astonishing courage, first to taunt, then to shoot the bull. It was disturbing on more levels than I could count. Later, however, I saw some noviladas, fights during which aspiring bullfighters confront young bulls. At one o’clock, in Arles, the young man might as well have tackled the bull with garden shears for all the artistic talent on display.