‘Bullfighting is a French ritual – leave us in peace’

After a protest against bullfighting in south-western France left a man in a coma over the weekend, The Local asks two key figures from either side of the argument whether the tradition should be protected or eradicated from French life.

'Bullfighting is a French ritual - leave us in peace'
Is it time Photo: Pascal Guyot

It might come as a surprise to many that bullfighting, typically thought of as a Spanish tradition, is a practice that is celebrated and occurs quite commonly in the south and south west of France.

However, a protest by anti-animal cruelty activists in the south west region of Landes over the weekend, which turned violent and left one man in a coma (VIDEO), has brought the controversy over the “corrida”, as it’s known, back into the spotlight in France.

A 1951 law in France banned cruelty to animals, but allowed an exception for practices such as bullfighting and cockfighting, where towns can prove they have had a long and uninterrupted tradition of the activities.

The Local asks two opposing voices – one of the coordinators of Saturday's protest as well as the local official who organised the bullfight – whether the time had finally come for France to ban completely ban bullfighting, in all areas.

"YES" says Jean-Pierre Garrigues, Vice-President of CRAC Europe (The Radical Committee Against Corrida) and one of the organizers of Saturday’s protest.

“Bullfighting is no more than a cruel and violent practice, and it’s not true to say that it’s part of France’s heritage,’” says Garrigues.

“It’s not. It’s a Spanish tradition, and an evil one at that. And just because something is a tradition, that doesn’t make it acceptable.”

“The 1951 law protects bullfighting in the south and south west, and cockfighting in parts of the north of France,” he says.

“What that gives us is a situation where the exact same activity – massacring animals – will get you a two-year prison sentence in Paris or Clermont-Ferrand, for example, but is allowed and even celebrated in a place like Rion-des-Landes.”

“Furthermore, the reality is that the vast majority of French people would support a total ban on bullfighting,” he adds.

“There are only 5,000 to 10,000 people who attend bullfights in France, out of a population of 60 million. But the bullfighting lobby is extremely powerful, very active in the media, and has the support of plenty of judges and elected officials.”

Garrigues accuses Interior Minister Manuel Valls of using his power and position to suppress moves to ban bullfighting, because of his personal attachment to the practice.

Last September, Valls, who was born in Barcelona, said of bullfighting: “It’s something I love, it’s part of my family’s tradition. It’s a culture we have to preserve.”

He was speaking in the face of legislative proposals by Genevieve Gaillard, a deputy and Socialist Party colleague, to extend France’s ban on animal cruelty to include bullfighting.

“Valls is a bullfighting fanatic,” says Garrigues. “The way he wielded his influence to shut down the bill to ban it was completely scandalous and totally undemocratic,” he adds.

The tide, however, is now beginning to turn, according to Garrigues.

“The ultimate solution to this will be a change to the law. We know that,” he says.

“So we are getting support from more and more deputies and local politicians all the time. Now we have judges who are on our side, as well as the majority of the French people,” he concludes.

"NO" says Bernard Dehez, Deputy Mayor of Rion-des-Landes, an avid corrida fan, and one of the organizers of Saturday’s bullfight, which was disrupted by the protest.

Photo Bernard Dehez, Fetes de Rions, (YouTube screengrab)

Dehez tells The Local, in no uncertain terms, that anti-bullfighting protestors are no more than meddlers who should leave the people of his region alone.

“Bullfighting is recognized as a tradition – a national tradition,” says Dehez.

“First of all, it’s extremely important to the local economy here in Landes. We have huge bullfighting spectacles and big festivals centred around bullfights.”

“That attracts a lot of tourism and visitors to our town, and other towns like it, which obviously has great economics benefits for local people,” he adds.

In fact, Dehez has said the town would be pressing charges against Saturday's protestors for “offences against public order and destruction of property,” as well as “being a nuisance to our show, which led to financial losses.”

“It’s not just us in the south and south west who love bullfighting. We have people who come from all over the country, from Paris and other big cities, just to see a bullfighting spectacle.”

“So quite frankly, these outsiders who come into our region to protest against bullfighting, which is perfectly legal – I wish they’d just leave us in peace.”

“I’m sick of these external forces, interfering in our traditions and trying to dictate to us how to do things,” he concludes.

Now that you've read these two opinions, share your own and make yourself heard in the comments section below.

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French MP abandons bid to ban bullfighting

A bid to ban bullfighting in France has been abandoned, to the relief of lovers of the traditional blood sport and dismay for animal rights' activists.

French MP abandons bid to ban bullfighting

The 577-seat National Assembly had looked set to vote on draft legislation that would have made the practice illegal.

But the MP behind the bill withdrew it after lawmakers filed more than 500 amendments, many of them designed to take up parliamentary time and obstruct the vote.

“I’m so sorry,” Aymeric Caron, a La France insoumise (LFI) MP and animal rights’ campaigner, told the national assembly as he announced the decision in raucous and bad-tempered scenes.

Though public opinion is firmly in favour of outlawing the practice, the bill had already been expected to be rejected by a majority of lawmakers who
are wary about stirring up the bullfighting heartlands in the south of the country.

“We need to go towards a conciliation, an exchange,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday, adding that he did not expect the draft law to pass. “From where I am sitting, this is not a current priority.”

His government has urged members of the ruling centrist coalition not to support the text from the opposition LFI, even though many members are known to personally favour it.

During a first debate of the parliament’s law commission last week, a majority voted against the proposal by Caron, who denounced the “barbarism” of a tradition that was imported from Spain in the 1850s.

“Caron has antagonised people instead of trying to smooth it over,” a lawmaker from Macron’s party told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The bill proposed modifying an existing law penalising animal cruelty to remove exemptions for bullfights that can be shown to be “uninterrupted local

These are granted in towns such as Bayonne and Mont-de-Marsan in south west France and along the Mediterranean coast including Arles, Beziers and Nîmes.

Around 1,000 bulls are killed each year in France, according to the Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Many so-called “bull towns” depend on the shows for tourism and see the culture of bull-breeding and the spectacle of the fight as part of their way of life – idolised by artists from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.

They organised demonstrations last Saturday, while animal rights protesters gathered in Paris – highlighting the north-south and rural-versus-Paris divide at the heart of the debate.

“Caron, in a very moralising tone, wants to explain to us, from Paris, what is good or bad in the south,” the mayor of Mont-de-Marsan, Charles Dayot, told AFP recently.

Other defenders of “la Corrida” in France view the focus on the sport as hypocritical when factory farms and industrial slaughter houses are overlooked.

“These animals die too and we don’t talk enough about it,” said Dalia Navarro, who formed the pro-bullfighting group Les Andalouses in southern Arles.

Modern society “has more and more difficulty in accepting seeing death. But la Corrida tackles death, which is often a taboo subject,” she told AFP.

Previous judicial attempts to outlaw bullfighting have repeatedly failed, with courts routinely rejecting lawsuits lodged by animal rights activists, most recently in July 2021 in Nîmes.

The debate in France about the ethics of killing animals for entertainment is echoed in other countries with bullfighting histories, including Spain and Portugal as well as Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

In June, a judge in Mexico City ordered an indefinite suspension of bullfighting in the capital’s historic bullring, the largest in the world.

The first bullfight took place in France in 1853 in Bayonne to honour Eugenie de Montijo, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III.