After 23 years of procrastination and hair-splitting, the French government has finally agreed to implement a European law which protects wild birds from hunters for much of the year.
But French hunters' groups yesterday threatened to ignore the government's decree and continue shooting wild geese, ducks and other waterfowl when the season closes on Friday, a month earlier than usual.
With presidential elections approaching, it seems certain the controversy will be exploited by extremist pro-hunting groups with connections with the far right. The hunters accuse the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, of surrendering to his Green allies, even though the EU wild birds directive was first approved by a centre-right French government in 1979.
All EU governments, including France, accepted that the migratory birds belonged to the continent, rather than individual countries and regions, and should be protected during their periods of migration and breeding. France has failed to apply the law until now, despite several European Court rulings against it. There has been violence in wildfowl hunting areas along the French western seaboard. Last year 12 hunters invaded a bird sanctuary in the Loire estuary and killed more than 100 protected and inedible birds. In other incidents, a bird sanctuary headquarters was burnt down, a Socialist MP in the Somme estuary was pelted with stones and a senior official of a bird protection organisation was beaten up.
The Jospin government has been trying to find compromise dates acceptable to Brussels and the hunting groups. These efforts collapsed last week when the French government watchdog, the Conseil d'Etat, ruled that the EU directive was binding and must be applied virtually in its entirety.
Since the more militant hunters rejected the compromise, the government decided to abandon further efforts to placate them. It announced that France would fall in line with the EU directive and ban the hunting of more than two dozen species of migratory birds – from geese and ducks to egrets, herons and woodcocks – during their breeding and migrating seasons. In future, hunting of these species will be allowed in France only from 1 September to 31 January.
The hunters said they had traditional rights to shoot the birds in August and February.
The problem for Mr Jospin is that hunting is largely a working-class sport in France. The controversy has opened a cultural gulf between the left-voting, rural working class and the urban, ecologically minded middle-class supporters of the Socialists and Greens.
The conflict has been exploited by a relatively new movement – Chasse, Peche, Nature, Tradition (hunting, fishing, nature and tradition) – several of whose leaders have previously been involved with the French far right.
The group scored 6.8 per cent of the vote in the European elections in 1999 and topped the poll in some hunting districts of Normandy and the Somme.
By taking away rural votes which might otherwise have gone to the left, the movement could play a pivotal role in the presidential and parliamentary elections in April, May and June next year.Reuse content