Top matador faces cruelty trial

Animal rights activists hope to end the 'horrific' practice of private bullfighting parties in the south of France, reports John Lichfield
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FRANCE'S most successful matador goes on trial this week for inflicting cruelty on animals - the first time that a bullfighter has faced such a charge anywhere in the world.

In an important test case for the future of bullfighting in France, Denis Lore - the Zinedine Zidane of French matadors - is charged with helping to organise a private bullfighting party on a farm near Nimes.

If he and the nine other defendants are found guilty, animal rights activists believe that the Spanish style of bullfighting to the death, La Corrida, could gradually be pushed out of France. "It would be the beginning of the end," said Josyane Querelle, president of the federation of French anti- bullfighting groups.

Bullfight aficionados say that this claim is exaggerated. Whatever the outcome, they insist, bullfighting in the established rings in Nimes, Arles and elsewhere will continue to enjoy a local exception from French animal cruelty laws. However, defenders of La Corrida admit that this week's trial is vital to the economic health of a blood sport that is opposed by 80 per cent of French people and increasingly ignored by young people in its "traditional" areas in the deep South.

At one recent corrida, in Palavas, near Montpellier, the municipality filled up the stadium by inviting scores of locally housed Kosovar refugees, including many children, without telling them where they were going. One of the Kosovars later wrote a letter to the local paper complaining about the horrors that he had experienced in France. June has already been a painful month for Mr Lore, aged 30. Last Sunday he was tossed by a bull and just missed being seriously gored, escaping with a broken nose and bruised ribs. He intends to appear in court on Thursday.

The case arises from a fiesta campera (private bullfighting party) in a village near Nimes in 1995. Four young bulls were put to death by trainee bullfighters in conditions described by Ms Querelle, the anti-corrida president, as "horrific even by the usual standards of bullfighting. The worst of the worst."

Evidence presented to an investigating judge showed that the bulls' horns were flattened to render them harmless; and that the trainee matadors wounded the bulls time after time before they succeeded in striking telling blows and the animals died. Mr Lore was present as an adviser.

Under the French penal code, based on a 1976 animal cruelty law, the public wounding and killing of bulls for "sport" is illegal. It is permitted only where La Corrida is an "unbroken local tradition". The corrida, or fight to the death (of the bull), has been practised in parts of the south and south-west of France for 140 years. In the older, indigenous, French style of bullfighting the bull was spared; it was the bullfighters who took the risks.

In recent years, in an attempt to bolster the flagging economics of bullfighting, La Corrida has been going on the road: using mobile Spanish bull rings to revive or create a "tradition" in places as far north as the suburbs of Bordeaux; or putting on private spectacles for wealthy aficionados.

The anti-corrida lobby argues that such events are not covered by the local exemption allowed to bullfights in established rings. It has fought, and lost dozens of cases to try to establish this point in recent years. The significance of the Lore case is that the French state has accepted some of the arguments of the anti-bullfight protesters for the first time. Mr Lore's lawyer, Maitre Jean-Jacques Pons, told the Independent on Sunday: "It is a very important case for the future of La Corrida. If we lose, it would no longer be possible to hold such private events; it might no longer be possible to train bullfighters in France. The sport would, of course, survive but it would be seriously destabilised."

Ms Querelle believes a victory - judgement is likely next month - would be even more important. "It would be the beginning of the end, because it would mark a shift in judicial precedent, which has always been pro- bullfighting until now. It would enable us to win other victories in civil cases to prevent private or itinerant bullfights.

"If a torero is convicted of cruelty to animals - something which has never happened anywhere in the world - it would be enormously important psychologically. It would help to awaken public opinion in this country, which is hugely anti-corrida, but passively so."