Open season on wild ducks in France

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The Independent Online
FEATHERS ARE about to fly. A violent row is about to break out between Paris and the European Union, and within the pink-red-green French coalition government, over the hunting season for migratory water-birds.

The French parliament voted last week to allow hunters in France to shoot certain birds - wild ducks and geese, but also woodcock and snipe - for an extra six weeks in the summer and for an extra month in the early part of spring.

The law, which was passed overwhelmingly by a three-quarters deserted National Assembly, deliberately contravenes a 19-year-old EU directive protecting birds which migrate between European countries.

It would allow French hunters, unlike their counterparts in other EU states, to continue to shoot the protected birds during their annual autumn and spring migrations. By nature, the birds are not purely French but spend parts of their lives in other countries, including Britain.

Apart from the conservation issues, the assembly's vote risks causing a destructive row within the French coalition - between Green members on the one hand and Socialists and Communists on the other. Hunting is largely a working man's sport in France.

The environment minister, Dominique Voynet, who is also leader of the Green Party, said yesterday that she would refuse to sign the documents implementing the new law. This could cause a minor constitutional crisis and a serious political crisis within the government.

The bird-hunting dispute has become a rallying point for submerged anti- European feeling in France. Few people dare attack the broad sweep of French EU policy on subjects such as the single currency. Emotion tends to be transferred to other issues, such as hunting, instead.

The hunting lobby has accused bureaucrats in Brussels of attacking the "culture of the French countryside". In fact, the directive about the birds was agreed by all EU governments - under a French presidency - in 1979.

It has never been properly applied by successive French governments, leading to a European Court judgement in 1994 ordering Paris to obey the rules.

The issue has become deeply emotive - and hopelessly confused - in the past four years: muddied by propaganda from hunters' groups loosely or directly associated with the far-right National Front. They accuse Brussels and Ms Voynet of having a secret agenda to abolish hunting altogether.

The run-up to Friday's vote was disfigured by outright intimidation of MPs. In the Somme, a young Socialist MP, Vincent Peillon, received threats against his family. His constituency headquarters was vandalised and daubed with hunters' slogans. He voted "Yes" to the new law.

Ms Voynet and the other Greens have been distressed by what they see as the lack of backbone displayed by the Socialist Party and the Jospin government in dealing with the hunters' groups.

They point out that active hunters account for only 3 per cent of the French population, and that 60 per cent of French people would like to see all blood sports banned.

In the event, more than three-quarters of members of the National Assembly found that they had a more pressing engagement when the issue came to a vote on Friday morning. Out of 577 members, there were 92 votes in favour and 20 against.

Under the EU directive, the shooting of migratory waterfowl should not start before September and should end on 31 January. These rules have never been applied in France. Under the law voted on Friday, shooting can start on 14 July and end on 28 February.

The later closing date is regarded as especially destructive by conservation groups. They say the birds are particularly vulnerable while migrating to their nesting grounds.

The question is: What will the EU do? The protection of birds which criss- cross EU national boundaries is a classical European environmental issue. However, without public support from other governments, the European Commission may be reluctant to take on a democratically elected body like the French parliament.