In France, hunters are men of the people. Credit: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP via Getty Images

September 23, 2021   6 mins

Autumn in France profonde. The glint of sun on gathered grapes, the spicy perfume of the sunflower harvest, the wild cry of hounds as la chasse courses through the misty forest — and, too often, the tragedy of someone being shot by the self-same hunt.

The hunting season in France, which begins as early as August in some north-eastern départments, is in full swing — and inevitably, there will be deaths between now and March, when it closes. According to the National Office of Hunting and Wildlife (ONCFS), since 1999 more than 3,000 shooting accidents have occurred, with in excess of 420 mortalities. Some of the dead were absolute innocents: a 69-year-old woman was shot in her own garden after a hunter fired through her hedge; a driver was killed by a bullet that had rebounded off a wild boar. Most of the dead, however, are hunters themselves, engaged in a pastime which is not just dangerous for the animal.

The ONCFS attributes the deaths to “a failure to comply with basic safety rules,” but one needs to acknowledge the nature of the game in the Hexagon. Significant beasts on the French “to-shoot list” include deer and wild boar, both of which require a round from a rifle — which can spin a projectile a whole kilometre — as opposed to the shotgun standard in British shooting, the range of which is mere metres. Yet the most obvious, and the most culturally significant, reason for the mortalities is the sheer number of people involved in the pursuit. If the number of registered hunters has gone down since the start of the century, it still stands at 1.2 million. By a long shot, hunting is France’s third most popular hobby, after rugby and football.

Hunting is also part of the national bloodstream, part of France’s sense of itself. It may be Europe’s most sophisticated country (Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès, the globe’s three leading luxury brands, are all Gallic), yet it is stubbornly rural, with non-urban areas accounting for one-third of the population (compared to a European average of 28%, and 17% in Britain). And France’s rural population inhabits 551,500 km², making the mainland population density just 11 people per km² — about a quarter that of England. Thus, the nation’s National Institute of Statistics concluded, France is the second most rural country in Europe, after Poland.

Not unrelatedly, the French are Europe’s most persistently anti-globalist nation, the most possessed by the notion of heritage. It is a country with a strong sense of Patrimoine, a country where bull-fighting and cock-fighting remain legal because they are preservations of the past — and in France heritage can trump animal ethics, let alone the prejudices of “townies”.

In 2019 second-home owners on the Ile d’Oléron, off the west coast, brought a case against a cockerel, Maurice, for crowing too early. The locals supported Maurice, and a judge upheld the cock-a-doodle-doos, ordering the plaintiffs to pay €1,000 in damages to Maurice’s owner, Corinne Fesseau. After a host of similar cases in which the unholy trinity of “neo-rurals”, Brit ex-pats and – worst of all – holidaying Parisians complained about the loud and smelly ways of France profonde, the National Assembly backed a bill from Pierre Morel-À-L’Huissier, a deputy from the Lozère, to protect France’s “sensory heritage”. By this was meant “the crowing of the cockerel, the noise of cicadas, the odour of manure.”

President Macron, before he discovered Tik-Tok and the young metropolitan electorate, brazenly tried to win the rural vote by lauding la chasse. He even re-launched the presidential boar hunt at Chambord, the Loire valley hunting castle of the 16th-century French king, François I. Cannily, in the so-called “Chambord Pact”, Macron halved the cost of the hunting licence to €223.64.

In France, unlike in the UK, hunting is not primarily an elite activity; les chasseurs in our neck of the Charente woods are the local boucher, the boulanger, the garage mechanic, the nurse and the peasant farmer, who all tip up in white Citroen Berlingo vans. It is the hunt that donates the boar to the charity roast, it is the guys from the hunt who mark out the paths in the forest for the village communal walk.

Quite literally, hunting in France doesn’t need to get off its high horse; hunters primarily hunt on foot, rather than aboard an equine. The right to shoot game was won from the aristocracy during the Revolution, and if French property rights are abstruse, it is generally accepted, courtesy of 1789 and All That, that hunters have a right to roam, unless formally forbidden by the landowner. In France, hunting is a Revolutionary act, as opposed to confirmation of class status.

So why do les chasseurs go out on a Sunday with a gun? Some are pragmatic. “It is food on the table, and will keep the family going for a week,” one acquaintance told me about the wild boar in the back of his van. For others the hunt, in shooting crop-destroying boar and deer, is performing a public duty. Many seek immersion in nature, to find their inner selves; or, as Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset described in Meditations on Hunting, the world’s classic on the subject (recently re-published in French as Sur la chasse): “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”

Such semi-mystical chasseur-speak draws ridicule from the pressure group Rassemblement pour une France sans Chasse (RAC) (“the Union for a France Free of Hunting”) and the actress-turned-animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot. Opponents of la chasse are increasingly vociferous, and believe they have time and political fashion on their side; the majority of hunters in France are men over 45 years old, and younger generations are polled as being averse to the killing of wild animals.

The poor safety record of the hunt hands ammunition to its critics: there are now calls galore for restrictions on hunting so that joggers, walkers, cyclists and drivers going for a Sunday spin can enjoy their pastimes in peace and safety. A recent online petition directed at President Macron, organised by the Association for the Protection of Wild Animals (ASPAS), called for an outright ban on Sunday hunting and garnered almost 200,000 signatures.

The most essential phrase in French life is: C’est compliqué. In what is perceived as a calculated blow to hunting, the glue-trapping of birds was finally outlawed by Macron in June, bringing France into line with the rest of the EU. (For decades, France has claimed a derogation under the “preserving heritage” rubric.) In August, trapping with nets and cages was similarly banned as being contrary to the 2009 EU “birds directive”. Perhaps 5,000 hunters engage in the practices, which are abhorred even by some fellow chasseurs. But should the glue-trappers and the netters be defended by the hunting fraternity — and the countryside generally — because, to paraphrase that other essential clause of French life, “an attack on one, is an attack on all”? C’est compliqué.

In the tension between city and country, it is not only the former ramping up the lobbying, the petitioning and the campaigning. The powerful Fédération Nationale des Chasseurs (or FNC), headed by Willy Schraen, has committed itself to combating “the erosion of biodiversity” — to the relief of its members, who consider themselves the original appreciators and champions of nature. After all, the French countryside is speckled with little metal signs in the Tricolour’s red, white and blue announcing land Réserve de Chasse et de Faune Sauvage under a government directive from 1991.

Increasingly, the FNC is targeting Big Farmer and intensive agriculture, which will play well in a country where peasant agriculture plucks the heartstrings. Moreover, in the public war over hunting, the chasseurs are finding allies which give their middle-aged male image a useful makeover. Model and Instagram star Johanna Clermont has become the torchbearer for younger and female hunters, as has 25-year-old Jessica HĂ©raud, leader of the FNC-approved Charente-Maritime women’s hunting federation “Les Dianes”, named for the Roman goddess of hunting. “The fact that women are in the minority in what for years has been a man’s hobby does not mean that they do not have a place in it, quite the contrary,” the FNC states on its website.

The hunters also have friends in the highest branches of the political tree. In the National Assembly, one in five MPs is a member of the Hunting and Territories group; in the Senate, the Hunting and Fishing group has more than 70 members. If Macron himself has now lined up with the environmentalists and animal rights activists, other prominent members of his party are siding with la chasse. Alain Péréa, an En Marche member of the National Assembly, is co-president of the Hunting group.

Last Saturday, there were pro-hunt protests across all corners of the country — in Mont-de-Marsan, Amiens, Redon, Caen, Charleville-Mézières and Forcalquier. The demonstration in Mont-de-Marsan, a modest-sized town in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, was attended by an intergenerational crowd of 20,000, many of whom were wearing the orange hi-vis vests of the hunter. “Démonstration de force des chasseurs,” went the headline of the regional paper Sud-Ouest Dimanche. The hunters played their trump card: along with the calls for preserving la chasse were the calls in defence of ruralité. In the French mind, la chasse and the countryside are still one, still intertwined. “Macron gravedigger of our traditions” read one placard.

Three years ago, the President first had trouble with the Gilets Jaunes. He should be wary, today, of tangling with the Gilets Oranges. There has been hunting in France since the Paleolithics painted animal scenes on the walls of the caves at Lascaux in the Dordogne. It will take some killing.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.