Brigitte Bardot's crusade to save Canada's seals

Brigitte Bardot was famous as the original sex kitten, but since then she has devoted herself to animal rights. Now she is back in Canada, where she began the fight against seal culls. David Usborne reports

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Famous people usually worry about their legacies. But not Brigitte Bardot, the erstwhile sex kitten of France. "It is not important how people remember me in the future. The most important thing is what happens today. When I am dead and gone I do not care what people think of me."

Bardot, who turns 72 this year, may or may not have been sincere. But what she could never deny is that in this life she has been talked about almost all the time. Hers has been a journey from sex icon to an animal rights champion and occasional socio-political provocateur who has attracted as many foes as friends.

Hers, in fact, has been a life in two acts. During the second, she has not only courted controversy with support for animals rights - not least this week when she returned to Canada to batter its government for allowing its annual cull of harp seals - but also veered close to political pariahdom, falling foul of the French courts two years ago for inciting racial hatred with a book that lamented the "Muslim over-running" of France and aired other explosive views, including about homosexuals.

Act One, - 'Lust' - is more affectionately remembered by most of us. The world first began to hear about blonde Bardot in the mid-1950s, when she began a modelling and acting career that saw her make 48 films, most of them fluffy enterprises that became vehicles for the camera to adore her curvaceous physical gifts.

Her heyday as a sex symbol came in the swinging 1960s, when she established St Tropez as the chosen resort of European sun-worshipers and hedonists. The South of France was about flesh and fun and Bardot epitomised the times.

Her career was peaking at roughly the same time. Propelled to the top rung of European starlets with her 1956 film 'And God Created Women', made by her then husband Roger Vadim, Bardot went on to ride the new wave cinema movement in France.

After a period of reclusion, she starred in a series of glossy 1960s crowd-pleasers while continuing to model and dabble in pop music, most notably with the saucy boy of French pop music, Serge Gainsbourg.

Bardot was, in those days, Europe's answer to Marilyn Monroe. Both became portraits painted by Andy Warhol. And both had timultuous private lives. After divorcing Vadim, Bardot went on to three other marriages, not to mention all the rumours of torrid affairs with the likes of Gainsbourg and another pop star Sacha Distel.

With husband number two, the actor Jacques Charrier (1959-62) she had her only child, Nicolas-Jacques Charrier, from whom she is estranged. (She once referred to him as a "tumour".) Her subsequent husbands were the German millionaire playboy Gunther Sachs (1966-69) and a French right-wing politician, Bernard D'Ormale, with whom she remains after their marriage in 1992.

Mention Bardot today, and for some, the image of those pouting come-hither years remains untarnished. The kitten of St Tropez may have become an ageing cat - one, by the way, that has publicly eschewed the lure of plastic surgery - but still we associate her with those burnished beach photographs in the now antique pages of Paris Match.

Bardot turned her back on cinema and everything else that created her bosom-heaving persona over 30 years ago. Her last film was in 1974. "I've made 48 films of which only five were good. The rest are not worth anything. I will not make another," she told one interviewer at the time.

With Act Two, Bardot has successfully parlayed her celebrity to become Europe's most indefatigable - and controversial - saviour of the animal kingdom, relentlessly campaigning for the end of mistreatment of animals. While the US-based PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is an organisation that repeatedly recruits film-stars and models as ambassadors to the causearound the globe, she has been a one-woman band.

And it has hardly been a flash-in-the-pan crusade. In 1986, the actress put up most of her worldly goods - from jewelry to her fancy spread in St Tropez - for auction. With the 3m French francs (£300,000) the sale raised, she moved her headquarters to Paris and called her organisation the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals.

With her new-found resources she set about launching legal challenges to strong-arm governments and other institutions to acknowledge the rights of animals. She took on the meat industry in France, demanding less cruel means of slaughter and pressuring her countrymen , with only limited success, to jettison their taste for horse meat. She has lobbied Vladimir Putin to end dog-fighting in Russia, campaigned for the end of bear-dancing in Bulgaria and fought to preserve families of wolves in Hungary.

"I have spent my entire life trying to make people respect all animal life," Bardot said in a recent interview. "The respect of their lives is as ours, essential to the ecological system as well. It has been my experience that almost everyone does not care about this issue and I cannot be everywhere. The human race makes me feel so upset. It is money that rules this world and leads to the worst possible atrocities."

Her sometimes incendiary political views can arguably be traced back to the 1992 marriage with Mr D'Ormale. It brought her into the orbit of the political right and led to associations with National Front leader and voice of the anti-immigration movement in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The link encouraged Bardot to lay bare some private thoughts on the policies of French governments that surely were better left unsaid.

The trouble she has generated has also proved an unfortunate distraction from her animal rights campaigning.

It first surfaced in 1998, when a court found her guilty of inciting racial hatred after making public comments about civilian massacres in Algeria. Only four months earlier, another court had fined her for claiming that France was being overrun by "sheep-slaughtering Muslims".

Such reprimands had little effect. In 2003, she published a book entitled 'A Scream in the Silence', that brought more accusations of both anti-Muslim and anti-gay bigotry. She denounced interracial marriage, called homosexuals "fairground freaks" and assaulted the government for being over-generous to the unemployed and to immigrants.

Fining her £4,000 this time, a court said that in her book, Bardot, "presents Muslims as barbaric and cruel invaders, responsible for terrorist acts and eager to dominate the French to the extent of wanting to exterminate them".

While not present for the verdict, she had tearfully defended herself to the court a few weeks before. "I was born in 1934; at that time interracial marriage wasn't approved. There are many new languages in the new Europe. Mediocrity is taking over from beauty and splendor. There are many people who are filthy, badly dressed and badly shaven."

She later made an attempt at social rehabilitation at least among the gay and lesbian community of France with a letter to a French gay magazine that may or may not have been well-advised. "Apart from my husband - who maybe will cross over one day as well - I am entirely surrounded by homos," she wrote. "For years, they have been my support, my friends, my adopted children, my confidants."

In Canada this week, however, Bardot has returned to her true calling for the past three decades by tackling the new conservative government of Stephen Harper over the imminent seal cull in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

It was in Canada, that it all started. The last time she travelled there was in 1977 and the cause, as now, was the protection of the harp seals. She was famously photographed embracing a seal pup, a blatant attempt to win over public sentiment against the eastern Canadian hunting industry.

"I am not crazy," a tearful Bardot told a packed press conference in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, earlier this week. "I am pleading with you. This will likely be my last visit to Canada before I die. I want to see this barbaric massacre stopped before I die." Her appeal followed a similar visit to Canada last month, also in the name of the harp seal, by Paul McCartney and his wife, Heather Mills McCartney.

The Bardot pilgrimage has already heated some normally cool Canadian tempers. She asked for a meeting with the newly elected Prime Minister Harper, who turned her down. That was after she delivered him an impassioned letter, wrapped in a photograph of a bloody seal after its killing. In it she implied he had a closed mind to the arguments of animal campaigners, asserting, with a striking lack of the courtesy due a head of government, "only idiots refuse to change their minds".

She has backing from animal rights campaigners in Canada and around the world - a demonstration in her support was planned for yesterday, for instance, outside the Canadian consulate in Dublin - but if she was hoping to melt hearts in the Canadian government, she appears to have failed. The Fisheries Department in Ottawa has raised the quota for this year's cull to 325,000 seals, an increase of 5,000 over last year. Officials insist the seals , who compete with fishermen for cod in Atlantic waters, have risen in number to at least five million, roughly three times higher than in the 1970s.

"It's the most legislated and regulated hunt in the world, and still these animal rights groups continue to use the beautiful seal to raise millions of dollars," insisted Edward Picco, Education Minister for the Nunavut aboriginal tribes that mostly hunt the animals. The only cruelty here is the cruelty being inflicted on aboriginal Canadians."

This time, Bardot will surely return to France disappointed. And, as she says, this was probably her last ever voyage to Canada and her last stand for the harp seals. With her foundation, however, she will continue to seek justice for animals. As for the epitaph she will one day earn, it is unlikely to be blank as she once suggested. Rather it will be crowded and complicated.

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