Austere Chirac bans presidential hunt

AS THE trees of northern and central France turn golden and the autumn mists gather, a Frenchman's thoughts turn to hunting. But today, when the season is declared open nationwide, two of the most prestigious hunting grounds will be silent. In the forests of Rambouillet and Marly- le-Roi there will be no crack of the gun and no baying of hounds - by order of the president.

Although a resident for three decades of one of the wildest parts of France, the Correze in the Massif Central, and a countryman by temperament, Jacques Chirac is not a huntsman, and he has decided that hunting is too much of a presidential luxury. He has had the 20,000 specially raised pheasants distributed among the country's other forests, and decreed the presidential hunting grounds closed.

At Rambouillet, there is talk of starting a centre to protect rare species, or to teach and illustrate traditional hunting techniques. Mr Chirac has made it known that the decision to close down the presidential hunt was not taken because he opposes hunting per se. That would not be wise for the leader of a country which boasts the largest number of registered hunters, 1.6 million, in Europe. His office cites instead his election promise to conduct his presidency "modestly".

The last president to enjoy hunting was Valery Giscard d'Estaing. His successor, Francois Mitterrand, was no huntsman, but he maintained the tradition as one of the necessary traits of a president's style, delegating responsibility for organising and leading the hunt to the head of his office, and using the twice-yearly occasions to entertain politicians, diplomats and friends.

Now that the hunting grounds have been closed, it will be politically difficult for any future French leader to reopen them. The presidential hunt has passed into tradition.

Mr Chirac may be sorry to learn, however, that while the end of the hunt sends out the appropriate message of austerity, it saves the taxpayer nothing. The annual seven million franc (pounds 940,390) costs were met by the national forestry office, an independent and self-funding body, and any game shot was sold at local markets, with proceeds going to charity.