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France, the last bastion of bullfighting Bull's blood flows in unexpected places

Gallic spectators prefer slow, classical cape-work. Pascal Guyot/AFP/ Getty Images

Gallic spectators prefer slow, classical cape-work. Pascal Guyot/AFP/ Getty Images


July 12, 2022   5 mins

Bordeaux might be the capital of the French wine industry, but visit in summer and you can entertain yourself with another kind of claret. Blood. I don’t mean from the broken noses of the city’s Top 14 rugby team, Bordeaux BĂšgles. I mean blood from bulls, spilled across sand on a sun-scorched afternoon. One of the Bordeaux region’s less-publicised tourist attractions is the corrida.

Think bullfighting and you probably conjure a sequin-flashing, cape-twirling arena in the Spanish city of Pamplona, but southern France has a bullfighting tradition dating back to the year dot — or 1289, at least. That year, the Running of the Bulls was first recorded at Bayonne, down the coast from Bordeaux. Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon, his classic account of bullfighting, was mighty sniffy about any corrida north of the Pyrenees, writing that: “Prospective spectators are warned not to take seriously any bullfights held in France.” The irony: currently, bullfighting is dying a slow death in Spain — Catalonia has effectively banned the sport — whereas in France, the corrida is alive and, if not exactly charging ahead, standing on its hooves.

Indeed, the country is set to become the bullfighting centre of the globe: an estimated 1,000 bulls per year are killed in French arenas. According to the pro-bullfight organisation, the Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines (ONCT), two million people attend corridas in France each year. As any of these French aficionados will tell you, likely at great length, the Gallic spectator is more demanding than the Spaniard, preferring slow, classical cape-work above theatrical stabbing. Olé!

The French fancy for bullfighting is at odds with the country’s penal code, which under article 521-1 bans “cruel acts and serious ill-treatment towards animals”. But this is a nation where patrimoine, heritage, is always the trump card. Thus, the penal code allows exceptions for bullfights — as it does for cockfights — where there is “uninterrupted local tradition”. After a presentation by the ONCT, the Ministry of Culture registered bullfighting as a French Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. Last November, the French parliament, dominated by Macron’s LREM, voted to end the use of wild animals in live circus shows, and outlawed mink farming, in new animal rights legislation. But it flunked a ban on bullfighting.

As you would expect — might even hope — bullfighting is a red rag to animal rights activists. The Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA) has filed cases in cities where bullfighting is popular, including Bayonne — so far without success. Each and every time, “uninterrupted local tradition” beats the cruelty to animals argument. Exactly what constitutes “uninterrupted” is a pay-day for lawyers; bullfighting in the Gironde, the Bordeaux department, exists largely because of a campaign in the Eighties by aficionado Claude Mounic, who persuaded a Bordeaux court that a hiatus of 26 years in the sport was caused by the collapse of a stadium, meaning the sport remains “uninterrupted”: “interruption cannot result from a material and fortuitous fact”. This overturned a previous decision by the Bordeaux tribunal that bullfighting locally had ceased to exist. Mounic went to court some ten times to restore the sport in the Gironde.

The arena concerned was in the suburb of Le Bouscat, and held 10,500 spectators. It was so decrepit that it was bulldozed to make way for a residential complex. Today the local venue is at La BrĂšde, which is one of the 50 or so towns organised in L’Union des villes taurines françaises. Created in 1966, the UVTF, was a key lobbyist behind the registration of bullfighting as a French Intangible Cultural Heritage.

French supporters of bullfighting cite heritage, art and biodiversity (bulls bred for the ring are raised outdoors, since rusticity gives the bulls “a savagery essential to their behaviour in the arena”, according to the ONCT). Then they cite heritage, again.

In southern France, from the Camargue westwards, tauromachie is part of the fabric of life. You can sit in a café and hear people discussing bovine-bloodlines back to the Ark until you want to chuck them in the ring, and feed them to the bulls. Much as The Times might publish details of  horse racing, Sud-Ouest (250,000 copies sold daily), publishes details of the of bullfights across south France and northern Spain. French fans, generally more monied than their Spanish counterparts, travel for tauromachie.

But the patrimoine argument is, well, bullshit: the corrida form of bullfighting, where the creature is provoked and killed with swords, was imported in the mid-19th century from Spain, where the “sport” had begun in Seville abattoirs. For the south of France, with its self-conscious “Espirit du Sud”, the Spanish-style corrida represented resistance to Parisian centralism. It still does. The current corrida’s self-conscious Hispanophilia, and use of Spanish lingo, is two fingers to rule by the Elysee palace. The South likes to lock horns with the Court. Ask the Cathars. Or indeed the French Revolutionary troops for whom the “Marseillaise” is named.

Bullfighting is a trans-Pyrennean business; bulls raised in the Landes and the Camargue — there are some 40 members of the Association des Ă©leveurs français de taureaux de combat — are transported to Spanish rings (a good bull will earn its owner €3000 for its 15 minutes of fame in a corrida). Meanwhile the matadors appearing in French rings are largely Hispanic. No French matador entered the top ten rankings until SĂ©bastien Castella in 2005.

Anyone writing on bullfighting needs to declare their skin in the game. I might raise livestock and sometimes shoot animals for the pot, but I don’t drown kittens in a sack or pull the legs off spiders for a larf. I am not a natural born bullfight spectator. Any iota of sympathy I personally had for the corrida began to fade when I first saw a pike stuck into a bull’s back; the more the bull leaked blood, the more my desire to watch the “spectacle” bled out. All the learned discourses about the bravura of the bulls, the grace of the matador, and what 41 celebrity defenders recently termed “an art, culminating in the meeting of courage and honour” were rendered to rubbish, as the bloodied body of the bull was dragged from the arena. When I think of my experience of the corrida, I hear the famous anti-bullfighting song, La Corrida , by French balladeer Francis Cabrel. Written from the bull’s point of view, the chorus runs: Est-ce que ce monde est sĂ©rieux?

Is this world serious? In the 21st century, a highly sentient creature is provocatively stabbed, then slaughtered for amusement. The Spanish-style bullfight is bull-baiting, pure and simple — a re-warmed Roman circus for the masses — and cannot last. According to a survey carried out by the independent polling company IFOP for Fondation Brigitte Bardot 74% of the French are in favour of a ban on French bullfights which end in the bull being killed.

It is fortunate, then, that French tauromachie originally had non-violent roots. In the “Course Landaise”, the matador leaps acrobatically over and around the snorter; in the “Course Camarguaise”, men and women race about, trying to grab ribbons and pompoms from the beasts’ horns. Angry but at least alive, the bull is put out to grass afterwards. According to the Anti-bullfighting Alliance, 76% of French people wish to replace bullfights with the Camargue and Landes alternatives. I can’t say that any taunting of an animal constitutes sport in my book, but ten out of ten bulls consulted prefer the non-deadly bullfight.

If your taste runs to it, there is no shortage of Course Landaise and Course Carmaguaise events this summer in Southern France — and they at least have the merit of being thoroughly, properly French. Such bullfights are often the centre of festivities which draw thousands onto the streets. Everywhere, the right red stuff flows freely. Wine. Not bull’s blood.


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

JLewisStempel

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Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

Last Bastion? There’s Bullfighting in Portugal too (Spain was mentioned in the article), Mexico, Venezuela; Ecuador; Peru and Colombia.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 years ago

You have been going to the wrong bullfights Mr Lewis-Stempel, you should have been heading for the ‘fiestas’ in Valencia.

Only a few years ago they were dominated by the magnificent 1,1000 lb beast charmingly named ‘Raton’ (mouse).Alternative descriptions included ‘el toro asesino’, (the killer bull), ‘el sangriento toro Raton’, (the bloody bull ‘Raton’) and el terrible RatĂłn (the terrible Mouse)

In a magnificent three year Blitzkrieg he killed three men and seriously gored at least thirty more! Appositely his first ‘kill’ was in Sagunto formerly the Roman city of Saguntum*. Those were the days!

* (Its siege in 219 BC/534 AUC, precipitated the Second Punic War.)

Last edited 2 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Angelique Todesco
Angelique Todesco
2 years ago

Brought up in Spain in the 70s and 80s, I was taken to my first bullfight at the age of 5/6 or thereabouts. I am proud to say I had a monumental meltdown and screamed blue murder at the participants telling them to “stop it, stop it”. Even writing this I can almost feel my total childish horror/panic at that experience. It is an abhorrent activity, I loved the costumes, the music, the pageantry, the horses and the bulls, but the torture and death are revolting and inhuman.
To stave off the horror of the experience, someone bought me Ferdinand the Bull, the Bull who sat and smelt the flowers and refused to fight so was released into a meadow to spend the rest of his years. I have loved that book ever since.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

Humans are ferociously addicted to killing – including other humans – just look at the latest murder figures; wars and violent conflicts around the world; the unborn and the different etc. Animals are an easy alternative and tend not to fight back. I applaud the ones that do.

ian young
ian young
2 years ago

As is the case with most anglo-saxons, there is here a confusion over the realities of the classical Spanish corrida. The use of the word “sport” is entirely out of place; the corrida is not, and never has been, a sport. The cruelty to animals argument is at best unfounded. A fighting bull exists only for the corrida. The breed has no other economic importance, and would quickly die out were the corrida to be banned. So to ‘save’ these creatures we should promote their fairly rapid extinction ? This to me seems absurd, especially if one adds that a toro bravo lives peacably in free range conditions until the age of four years, rather longer and in much better conditions than his bovine cousins raised for beef. The payment is about 15 minutes in the arena, uncomfortable perhaps, but at least doing what he was bred to do. Given the choice, I know which option I would choose.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  ian young

That’s my point. You have put it eloquently. Milk cows have an even worst existence by the way.

Tim Diggle
Tim Diggle
2 years ago

I have been to a couple of bullfights in France, in Les Stes Maries de la Mer and Arles – both were Course Camarguaise, were hugely entertaining parts of vibrant festivals and definitely gave the bulls a huge advantage, especially the older specimens who seemed to have learnt ..! No bulls died but I suspect a couple of human competitors have come close.

I have also regularly enjoyed the Fete du Taureau held in St Jean de Luz every September. No bull is ever harmed as none is involved. 4 sturdy humans march around the town square carrying a whicker bulls head to which fireworks are attached. The locals, loaded with steak and copious amounts of red wine, light the fireworks as the head passes through the throng – how anyone or any property survives remains a mystery (the UK HSE would have a thrombie at the mere thought of such a festival!)

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
2 years ago

Spain? Latin America? I think the title is completely false.