France's love affair with bullfighting goes sour over 'too gruesome' advert

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France's animal rights movement has succeeded this week in planting a couple of sharp spears in the flanks of the once seemingly untouchable French bullfighting industry.

Fierce public controversy has finally broken out on an issue which has traditionally attracted only marginal interest in France.

A television advertisement calling for a ban on bullfighting has been declared unacceptable - because it shows violent scenes at bullfights.

The decision by France's advertising watchdog has drawn attention to the bizarre - and critics say hypocritical - legal status in France of "la corrida", the Spanish style of bullfighting to the death (of the bull). Bullfighting is banned in France but legally tolerated in those areas which can claim an unbroken local "tradition". In practice, French courts have allowed bullfighting to spread to towns in the south where no such tradition exists.

If the practice of stabbing and slaughtering bulls in public is too violent for family viewing on prime-time television, critics ask, why are children allowed to attend bullfights in France?

On one side of the ring are several celebrities, including the Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, the animal rights activists and retired actress Brigitte Bardot, the Franco-American ice-skater Surya Bonaly and Renaud, a lugubrious, ageing "protest" singer and France's answer to Bob Dylan.

On the other side of the ring are bullfighting fans, including the prime minister and several ministers, and the substantial bullfighting economic interests of the deep south of France.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the President, generally keen to shake his cape at any controversy, has scuttled for cover. He has, however, promised to examine the arguments, on both sides, as part of a national conference on environmental issues this autumn.

Mid-August is a period for bullfighting festivals or "ferias" in the French south and south-west. There have been events this week at Béziers, Dax and in the suburbs of Toulouse. The once weak, and much-splintered, anti-bullfighting movement in France has held its usual demonstrations outside the arenas. It has also hired light aircraft to fly overhead dragging banners declaring bullfighting to be "barbarous". However, the three separate anti-bullfight associations, working together for the first time, scored their most successful victory in an apparent defeat. The Bureau de vérification de publicité - the advertising watchdog - rejected a 46-second television commercial which called for a ban on bullfighting.

The BVP justified its decision on the grounds that the bullfighting scenes shown in the ad were too gruesome for family viewing. And yet the scenes - rapidly inter-cut in black and white - are to be found in any corrida: the crippling of the bull with spears and then the slaughter.

The protest singer Renaud narrates a brief commentary on the banned ad. "At the beginning of the third millennium, this is what some people still take pleasure in looking at. Torture and death offered as a spectacle. We can no longer accept this today. Join the fight for civilisation." The rejection of the ad - now widely posted on the internet - has generated a windfall of publicity for the cause. Renaud said: "The BVP is treating us as imbeciles. If they really want to protect the young, they could start by banning people under 15 from the bullfighting arenas to spare them a spectacle of torture and sadism."

Yesterday, the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro weighed into the debate with a page of articles and an editorial defending bullfighting. La corrida was a "crime of passion" committed "live and in public", Le Figaro said, but its "origins lay at the heart of human existence". The editorial mocked the "sensitive celebrity souls" who complained that the world was being made too "uniform" but campaigned against "majestic" local and national traditions.

Le Figaro failed to mention the true bullfighting tradition in France is not La Corrida, which arrived from Spain in the 1850s. The French tradition, in which the bull survives to fight again and again, is still to be found in the Camargue, in the Rhône delta, and in the Landes, south of Bordeaux.

The bullfighter or bullfighters have to retrieve ribbons tied to the horns. The Spanish tradition of La Corrida has largely triumphed in southern France in the last 150 years. Under a law passed in 1976, the torture and deliberate mistreatment of animals is illegal. The law makes an exception for La Corrida but only in those areas where there is an "unbroken, local, tradition".

Courts in the south have interpreted the law as referring to almost anywhere south of the Loire.

Perhaps significantly, however, no political figure in France was prepared to respond to Le Figaro's attempts this week to canvass the opinions of bullfighting supporters.