Pro-hunt protesters bring Paris to a halt

Click to follow
MORE THAN 150,000 people from all over France marched through Paris at the weekend to demonstrate against the European Union.

The principal target of the largest march in France for several years was not the single currency, or national sovereignty. It was an obscure, 19- year-old directive which limits the hunting season for migratory water foul throughout the EU.

The demonstrators were rural hunters who have been persuaded by their local federations (and populist politicians, including the far-right National Front) that Brussels wants to abolish their sport. They reserved the second barrel of their protest for the French environment minister, Dominique Voyet, accused, unfairly, of being in league with Brussels.

The colourful protest - a pack of hounds and a wild boar were among the marchers - passed off peacefully. The only violent incident was an attack on a brave woman who mounted a solitary counter-protest on behalf of French wildlife: she was showered in empty beer cans. The National Front had a contingent at the march, but so did the Communist Party.

The demonstration, timed to coincide with the campaign for regional elections in France next month, was mostly a protest against the so-called EU "birds" directive of 1979. This directive limits the hunting of migratory waterfoul, including geese, ducks, snipe and teal, to the period from mid-September to the end of January. The intention is to protect the birds during their migrations. The European rule has never been fully implemented in France which allows its season to open in mid-July and close at the end of February. This has now been challenged in the European Court.

The hunters were also protesting against a challenge in another European court - the Court of Human Rights - to an old French law which gives hunters the right to shoot game on all properties of less than around 90 acres, whether the owners like it or not. The hunters are also suspicious of a six-year-old EU plan to create a Europe-wide network of nature reserves.

The French government has made countless promises that it will fight in Brussels to ensure that the EU regulations will be applied in a way which respects French traditions and pastimes. But the hunting lobby has convinced its supporters that Brussels, and Ms Voynet, leader of the French Green Party, have a secret agenda to abolish hunting.

For weeks rural France has been in a ferment of anticipation - and intimidation - at the Paris march. Hunters in many areas were warned that their permits would be cancelled unless they were seen in Paris. Transport to the capital was provided free for those who could not afford to pay.

In many ways, this is a classic town-country confrontation, similar to the controversy over fox-hunting in Britain. A poll last week showed that 60 per cent of French people, predominantly those living in towns, disapproved of hunting and would like to see it abolished. On the other hand, one bearded Breton demonstrator said on Saturday that Ms Voynet "must understand that nature belongs to those who live in it and not to people, like her, locked up in their offices all day."

Few Parisians turned out to watch the march. In any case, the city was semi-deserted. A two-week school holiday began last Friday and a large proportion of Parisians had left the city, as usual, to go into the mountains, or the countryside.