OPINION: ‘France should get tough on hunters… but it probably won’t’
France remains the most dangerous place in western Europe to go for a country walk or cycle ride in autumn and winter and while there are many things that could be done to make people safer, it doesn't look like anything will happen soon, says veteran France correspondent John Lichfield.
Published: 25 October 2018 16:20 CEST
I was sitting in my garden in Calvados the other day contemplating this year’s glorious co-existence between autumn leaves and summer flowers. Bang!! A shower of lead pellets passed a few metres behind my head shredding the leaves of the apple trees.
My 80-something neighbour was accidentally stalking me again. According to the law, he is forbidden to fire his gun within 150 metres of a house or a road. He breaks the law most Sundays between September and February.
I have complained politely in the past. Other neighbours have complained. He shrugs and insists that he is very careful and has not yet killed anyone. He never seems to hit a bird or animal either so that is not especially reassuring.
No one in the hamlet cares to make an official complaint to the gendarmerie. He is the first assistant mayor of the commune, a man of some local power.
Elsewhere in France, autumn has also started with a bang – and a series of predictable tragedies. Five people have been killed since the hunting season commenced last month. The victims include a 34-year-old British chef, Marc Sutton, shot by a young, inexperienced hunter while riding his mountain bike on an official trail in Haute Savoie.
Last weekend, a hunter was killed in the Meuse; another off-road cyclist was wounded in Ariège; and two surfers complained that they were fired upon by pheasant shooters on the Finistère coast in Brittany.
Hunting accidents have been declining in France in recent years. “Only” 13 people lost their lives in the six months of the 2017-18 hunting season, compared to 18 the previous year and an average of 20 since the start of the century. Most victims are other hunters.
France remains nonetheless the most dangerous place in western Europe to go for a country walk or cycle ride in the autumn and winter. This year’s early season carnage is probably explained by the Indian Summer, which has brought more people into the hills and woods.
What can be done? Several things.
What will be done? Not much, if the experience of my 22 years in France is anything to go by.
Over 80 per cent of French people in one recent poll said that they supported a ban on hunting on Sundays. A petition to President Emmanuel Macron calling for a Sunday ban launched by the wildlife protection group ASPAS (L’Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages) has attracted over 185,000 signatures.
There is no reason to expect action soon. The hunting lobby, though representing only two per cent of the population, is very powerful in France. One Macron-supporting deputy, Alain Péréa, provoked fury a week ago when he suggested that the way to protect cyclists from being shot dead on forest trails was to ban VTT (off-road) cycling in the hunting season.
The Macron administration, though supposedly “metropolitan” and out of touch with La France Profonde, is surprisingly pro-chasse. In August the government halved the annual fee for a national hunting licence to €200, without placing any new restrictions on les chasseurs. This was one of the reasons why France’s favourite Green Guru, Nicolas Hulot, resigned as environment minister last month.
Macron may believe that hunting is the way to the rural heart. He is wrong. In my experience in the Calvados hills 20 miles south of Caen, genuine country people rarely hunt. My gun-happy neighbour is the exception, rather than the rule.
A recent national survey confirmed my suspicions. One third of the country’s 1.2 million hunters are executives or members of the professions. Less than one in ten are farmers or farm labourers.
The hunters who pour into my commune at the weekends come from the suburbs of large towns. They are like an invading militia, dressed up in camouflage jackets and trousers, covered by the legally-required day-glo vests (an absurd combination but probably responsible for the fall in the hunting death rate).
I am not against hunting but I have come to fear and dislike these people. They leer aggressively at walkers as if to say: “rather you, than me. We’ve got guns. We can do as we like.”
I’m not alone. My 70-something neighbour Madeleine says: “I hate them, I hate them. I never feel safe when they are around.”
So what COULD be done? A ban on hunting on Sundays is long overdue. France is the only country in western Europe in which shooting is allowed seven days a week.
The existing rules should be enforced more rigorously, including the rules on not firing or carrying loaded guns near houses or roads.
There should be tougher rules on safety training for hunters – not just the new recruits but the over-50s who make up the bulk of a slowly declining pass-time.
There should also be rules against drinking while hunting and random breathalyser checks by the gendarmerie.
Will any of this happen soon? I doubt it.
John Lichfield is a former France correspondent and foreign editor for the Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield
OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel
Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.
Published: 26 January 2022 11:29 CET Updated: 29 January 2022 09:51 CET
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP
France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.
From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur(TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.
The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.
Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops in 11 hours and 13 minutes.
To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?
Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.
The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.
The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.
The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.
Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.
A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.
Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.
The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is €100.
The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.
In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains. It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.
For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.
What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.
Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.
“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”
Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.
Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.
The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.
Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.
The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme failed?
François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.
“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.
Amen to that.
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