France's militant hunters hijack presidential campaign

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Militant French hunters have broken up a series of Green electoral meetings in recent days, hijacking the presidential campaign to pursue what they see as a private war for the soul of rural France.

The violence – mostly in Calvados, Normandy – has been condemned publicly by the hunters' leader, Jean Saint-Josse, a former far-right politician who launched his own party devoted to "hunting, fishing, nature and rural traditions" two years ago.

Mr Saint-Josse, 58, who is running at a significant 4 to 5 per cent in opinion polls before Sunday's first round of the election, has condemned the violence as undemocratic and damaging to his cause.

Greens note, however, that Mr Saint-Josse has appealed to his supporters to "punish" the ecological party for recent decisions taken by Yves Cochet, the Green Environment Minister, including an EU-inspired shortening of the hunting season for migratory birds.

More than 100 khaki-clad hunters broke up a Green electoral meeting at Hérouville, near Caen, at the weekend, tearing down posters and throwing rotten eggs and bird-scaring fireworks. This followed three similar incidents in Normandy in previous weeks and less serious attacks on Greens in the Somme and elsewhere.

"We are not going to let the Green preach here [in Calvados]," one local hunter said. "They are just fundamentalists. They are not truly interested in, or part of, the countryside."

Calvados and the Somme, both rich in waterfowl, are Mr Saint-Josse strongholds. Hunters are furious that Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, and his coalition of Socialists, Greens and Communists finally bowed to EU law this year to enforce a 23-year-old directive protecting migratory waterfowl and other birds.

This year, the French hunting season is shorter by a month. The problem for Mr Jospin is that hunting is largely a working-class sport in France. The dispute has opened a cultural gulf between the traditionally left-voting, rural working class and the middle-class, ecological, urban left. Many votes going to Mr Saint-Josse might otherwise have gone to the Socialists or Communists.

Hunting is not the only grievance exploited by Mr Saint-Josse. He also mocks Parisians who complain about noise in their country homes and weekenders who litter the countryside with disposable nappies. His critics say he has shown little interest in home-grown ecological threats, such as fertiliserspolluting water-ways and the destruction of hedges and coppices to create vast cereal fields.