Matadors seek new blood in France

Strapped for cash and hounded by animal rights protesters, bull- fighting is on the run
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The first ever bull-fight in the small town of La Brede, just south of Bordeaux, began in light drizzle and ended in a downpour. Rain at Wimbledon or Lord's is traditional; but whoever heard of rain at a bullfight?

The weather did not stop the ritual slaughter: eight young Spanish bulls died before an enthusiastic French audience. Most of the animals died "nobly". The third was booed and whistled. With blood streaming from its gashed shoulders, evidently exhausted and in pain, it sat down in the wet sand, lowered its huge head and awaited its fate. The matador, who had already made three attempts to kill the animal, walked away with a mixture of triumph and contempt. It took another five or six clumsy stabs to the neck by one of the lesser bull-fighters to finish the creature off.

On any reasonable reading of French law, this was an illegal event. Under the 1976 law against cruelty to animals, the Spanish-style of bull-fighting, la corrida, is banned, except in those areas where there is an "unbroken local tradition". In 1952 it was declared illegal to kill bulls in the public ring in France, except in 29 specified "traditional" towns.

There is no history of la corrida in La Brede, which is a wine town, the capital of the Graves white wine country. There was once a bull-ring in Bordeaux but it burned down in 1961 and was never rebuilt. So much for "local" and "unbroken". How about traditional?

The Spanish style of bull-fighting to the death has been traditional in parts of France for 140 years. But this was a very Spanish bull-fight. It was organised by a Spanish company, with Spanish animals, matadors and mobile bull-ring, with stalls offering sangria, tapas, paella and San Miguel beer. The gendarmerie turned out in large numbers, but not to stop the show. They were here to protect it from a peaceful demonstration by anti-bull-fighting protesters.

This was, in effect, a political and evangelical bull-fight: part of a campaign to push the corrida out of its ghetto in the deep South of France and reconquer lost territory. You might say that the rain was political rain: a meteorological signal that bull-fighting has no real place this far north.

The event, advertised as an "exceptional bull festival", was part of La Brede's annual show, but it was no amateurish, small-town affair. The matadors included a couple of semi-retired Spanish stars and two of the best in France, including Richard Milian, the only active Frenchman to have been presented with the severed ears of a bull in the main Madrid arena. Normally, these men might command up to pounds 50,000 for an appearance. In La Brede, they were giving their services for free.

So far, the judiciary, allegedly under pressure from local politicians, have refused to apply the 1976 law. They have allowed bull-fights in the area in recent years, on the grounds that "local" means regional; that there was once a tradition; and 30 years is not a gap worth noticing.

Josyane Querelle, president of the Federation of French anti-bull-fighting groups, said: "We can demonstrate. We can bring another legal action, and we will. But as long as local politicians and judges refuse to accept the clear sense of the 1976 law, our hands are tied. We can only hope that an event like this will provoke so much disgust, locally, that it might be a turning point."

Demonstrators said most people from La Brede were either indifferent to, or ashamed of, the bull-fight. "They're too scared to say much," said Richard Beaumonte, 43. "This has been organised by the mayor and here the will of the mayor is supreme."

The French anti-bull-fighting lobby did, however, score a legal victory last month. They persuaded a judge in Nimes, in the midst of classic bull-fighting territory, to start an investigation of Denis Lore, one of the best-known French matadors, for "an act of cruelty to animals". He is accused, not of performing outside the bull-fighting area, but of taking part in an unregulated, "private" corrida near Nimes in 1995.

This was an important breakthrough and has caused much consternation in French bull-fighting circles. "The whole of a profession and tradition has been placed under investigation," said the French union of picadors and banderilleros. Mr Lore's lawyer, Jean-Jacques Pons, said that private corridas were essential to train bull-fighters. "The animal protection associations know they can't attack the corrida head-on, so they're trying to dismantle all the essential activities which surround it."

Private bull-fights, organised by the wealthy on farms or private estates, generate something else that the industry badly needs - cash. The private contests, and the colonisation of lost territory to the north, are driven by the same logic. Bull-fighting is losing popularity in its traditional areas along the coast between the Rhone and the Spanish border; it is also losing ground in Spain: la corrida needs new markets.

But there is also a regional, political motive. Following EU and French government restrictions on the killing of rare birds, there has been a backlash in the South-west, which has a strong tradition of rural blood sports, such as the hunting of doves and thrushes and ortolans. A green regional councillor, Genevieve Andueza, said: "The mayor of La Brede [Michel Dufranc] is one of the leaders of the hunting and blood sports lobby in the area. That is why he brought the bull-fight here. He is making a point. He is showing off to his friends."

M Dufranc dismisses all such arguments. He said the show committee had invited the corrida to bring business to the town. "The courts have decided there is an unbroken tradition of bull-fighting in the whole of the Aquitaine region," he said. "If the animal rights people don't like that, they should get a law passed by the national assembly banning bull-fighting. But if they did that, there would be riots all across the South."

Next to me at the bull-fight, there was a friendly, middle-aged man, wearing jeans and a Hard Rock Cafe baseball cap. This was only his third or fourth bull-fight, he said. "Bull-fighting is not part of our culture here," he admitted. "It belongs, properly, to areas further south which raise cattle. We are a wine area."

I explained to him that I was there to write about the controversy. "Well," he said, adjusting his argument. "You can't say that it is not traditional here either. It both is and it isn't."

If there was any doubt about the political-evangelical nature of the event you needed only to read the regional newspaper, Sud-Ouest, the next day: "C'est fait [it's done]," wrote its bull-fighting correspondent. "La Brede now belongs to the great toreo family ... it's on the bull-fighting trail, with all its great mysteries and its great joys."

Additional reporting by Alexandra Maramenides