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EXPLAINED: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

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EXPLAINED: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?
Spanish matador Daniel Luque fights a bill in the arena of Arles, southern France, on June 6, 2021. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

French MPs will vote due later this month on whether to ban bullfighting in a move that has enraged lovers of the blood sport in those parts of the country where it is popular. Here's what you need to know.

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Lawmakers in France are trying once again to ban bullfighting.

The issue has split the ruling coalition of President Emmanuel Macron and the biggest opposition party, the far-right National Rally, which is led by animal-lover Marine Le Pen.

Journalist-turned-MP Aymeric Caron has proposed a bill to outlaw the centuries-old practice, which remains popular in south west France. The bill is currently with the Law Commission before going up for a vote in the National Assembly on November 24th - the first time MPs have ever voted on the subject. 

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Currently, France’s penal code outlaws acts of cruelty towards animals but makes an exception for “uninterrupted local traditions” such as bullfighting. To prohibit it is to clash with the aficionados attached to this local custom in cities including Bayonne and the medieval jewel of Mont-de-Marsan in southwest France near Spain, where the practice has its origins, and along the Mediterranean coast including Arles, Beziers and Nimes.

Environmentalist MPs tried and failed in 2013 and again 2021 to have bullfighting banned, despite widespread public support. According to an Ifop poll conducted in February for animal welfare organisation 30 millions d'amis, 77 percent of French people are in favour of banning bullfighting - up from 50 percent in 2007. 

Spanish matadores Enrique Ponce (L) and Ivan Fandino (R) react after a bullfighting with Victoriano del Rio's bulls during the festival of La Madeleine at Plumacon arena in Mont)de)Marsan, southwestern France, on July 24, 2015.AFP PHOTO / GAIZKA IROZ (Photo by IROZ GAIZKA / AFP)

The trend is reversed in cities with a bullfighting tradition, where 72% of the inhabitants favour maintaining bullfighting, according to a poll conducted by Ifop and Sud Radio in June.

Earlier this year, La France Insoumise MP Caron said: ““I think the majority of French people share the view that bullfights are immoral, a spectacle that no longer has its place in the 21st century.”

For years, critics have sought a final legal blow against what they call a cruel and archaic ritual, but none of the draft bills presented have ever been approved for debate by National Assembly lawmakers.

French courts have also routinely rejected lawsuits lodged by animal rights activists, most recently in July 2021 in Nimes, home to one of France’s most famous bullfighting events.

'Leave our traditions alone'

Caron hopes his bill will attract cross-party support. And the idea of a ban does have backing outside his left-wing party, including top members of Macron’s party such as the head of his parliamentary group Aurore Berge, who was among 36 lawmakers who called for a bullfighting ban last year.

Rassemblement National MP Julien Odoul, told Le Parisien: "The cause is more important than political differences.

"I will gladly vote for the abolition of bullfighting."

The move to ban it could fail because a majority of MPs fear a backlash in rural areas and bullfighting heartlands where the practice is a cherished cultural tradition.

The conflict echoes the widening rift in France between rural dwellers steeped in deep agriculture traditions, and Parisians and other urban residents accused of trampling on the country’s cultural heritage.

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

Bullfighting is "our identity, a living culture. Leave us alone with our traditions!" added Dayot, who is vice-president of the Union of French Bullfighting Towns.

The law would also ban cock-fighting which is permitted in some areas in northern France.

Bullfighting country

Bullfighting dates back to Roman times, but the first written reference to a bull-running event in France dates from 1289 – as part of law concerning the driving of animals through the streets to the slaughter house in Bayonne.

As well as Bayonne, bullfighting events take place in Mont-de-Marsan in the Basque Country, near the Spanish border, and along the Mediterranean coast in towns such as Arles, Béziers and Nîmes.

Spanish matador Manuel Escribano gestures after fighting with a Miura bull on June 9, 2014 during the Bullfighting Pentecost feria in Nimes, southern France. AFP PHOTO BERTRAND LANGLOIS (Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP)

It is so popular that regional newspaper Sud Ouest still publishes corrida results from across southern France and northern Spain.

Spanish-style corridas have taken place in parts of south west France since the 19th century, with bullfighting events popular in the Spring and Summer months - with the season beginning in late April and running into September.

An estimated 1,000 bulls per year are killed in French arenas, while according to the pro-bullfight organisation, the Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines (ONCT), two million people attend corridas in France every year.

As well as the Spanish style corrida, there are two more types of French 'bullfighting'. One is the "course landaise", in which cows are used instead of bulls. In this type of event, teams try to dodge and leap over the cow, with each team aiming to complete a set of at least 100 dodges and eight leaps.

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In the "course camarguaise", meanwhile, the goal is to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull.

Bullfighting was actually added to the list of France's "cultural heritage" in 2011 by then-French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand. Four years later, it was cut from the list, following a massive public outcry.

It is, in fact, banned in most of France but is allowed in the south because it is regarded as a cultural tradition, despite complaints from activists that the sport is a form of animal cruelty.

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