The Big Question: Are the French and the Spanish finally turning against bullfighting?

Paris Correspondent,John Lichfield
Friday 24 August 2007 00:00

Why are we asking the question now?

Opposition to bullfighting in France – weak and divided in the past – has finally broken through into the mainstream media and political agenda this summer. An anti-bullfighting television advertisement, narrated by the French protest singer Renaud was banned by the country's advertising watchdog as "too violent". The 46-second ad showed standard, bullfighting scenes of animals being weakened with spears and then slaughtered. If such scenes are too gruesome for prime time television, the anti-bullfight campaigners ask, why are children allowed to attend bullfights in the south of France? Why do bullfights exist at all, when they are clearly contrary to the spirit of French and European laws on cruelty to animals?

Isn't French bullfighting less gruesome than the Spanish kind?

Oui et non. Much confusion exists on this point. There are two, ancient forms of French bullfighting – from the Camargue in the Rhône delta and the Landes, south of Bordeaux – in which the bulls are not deliberately injured or killed. The bullfighters have to snatch ribbons or rosettes from the animals' horns. Since the 1850s, however, La Corrida, the Spanish type of bullfighting to the death (of the bull), has all but driven native French forms into extinction. La Corrida is exactly the same in its heartland in south and south-western France as in Spain.

Technically, La Corrida is illegal in France but a succession of animal rights laws, starting in 1951, have made an exception for those places which can claim "an unbroken local tradition". In practice, French courts have interpreted "local" as meaning anywhere within the southern and south-western belt, from the Pyrenees to the Alps, which has a long, cultural acceptance of bullfighting. As a result, La Corrida has pushed back into "lost" cities such as Bordeaux, Toulouse and Marseilles in recent years.

Why has the issue become suddenly so hot in France?

There has been a drift in public opinion towards support for the protection of animals. The fox-hunting ban in Britain has been used by French animal rights groups as a spur and a challenge. Up to 80 per cent of French people now oppose La Corrida. As the regional differences in French culture are slowly eroded, even the traditionally more brutal or callous culture of the South is beginning to find bullfighting a little hard to swallow.

Nicolas Sarkozy suggested last spring that, if elected president, he might impose new restrictions on La Corrida. He said that a "possible way forward" would be to have bull-fighting festivals without the public slaughter of animals. He now appears to have folded away his crusader's cape but has placed the issue on the agenda of an environmental conference in October.

Is bullfighting still as popular as ever in Spain?

No. A Gallup survey earlier this year found that 72 per cent of Spaniards have no interest in bullfights. Twenty years ago, only 46 per cent expressed no interest. Anti-bullfight activists insist that foreign tourists now largely finance the killing of 40,000 bulls in Spanish bullrings each year. Bullfighting, nonetheless, remains a central part of the culture of central and southern Spain.

Is there any movement to repress La Corrida in Spain?

Barcelona declared itself an anti-bullfighting zone in 2004 and 38 other Catalan towns have followed suit. Animal rights campaigners staged their first demonstration in Malaga, a traditional centre for the "sport" this month. The government has banned live bullfights from state television before the 8pm watershed, to protect children. The Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is known to oppose bullfighting. Bullfighting fans, backed by writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa, are lobbying Unesco to declare La Corrida part of Spain's national heritage.

What about beyond Spain?

Killing bulls in public is technically illegal in Portugal but has survived in some areas and is tending to gain ground. In Latin America, bullfighting remains popular in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. The latest trend is for child toreros, or bullfighters, some starting at the age of nine.

What are the arguments for and against bullfighting?

Aficionados say that bullfighting is a celebration of the power and intelligence of the bull. It is a survival of a rivalry, and love-affair, between man and beast, which goes back to primeval times. Fighting bulls belong to a race of cattle which would disappear without La Corrida, sadly reducing the range of biological diversity. The bulls are bred to fight. They enjoy fighting. They feel little pain.

Opponents of bullfighting say that it is a barbarous relic of an uncivilized past, the equivalent of bear-baiting or cock-fighting. If the bulls are keen to fight, why are they often goaded into anger and aggression before being released into the ring? If the contest is a noble meeting of man and beast, why are the odds so carefully stacked on the side of the man? There is an enormous, moral difference between animals being slaughtered humanely in private for food and killed in public for entertainment.

Is there any real chance of bullfighting being banned or restricted in France?

In the near future, no. A substantial business depends on bullfighting in the South and Southwest. Any attempt to ban bullfighting would be exploited, by local politicians of left and right, as an attack on the local traditions of the South. President Sarkozy is unlikely to want to take that bull by the horns. His Prime Minister, François Fillon, is said to be a bullfight fan. But the tide of public opinion in France is clearly shifting. By placing the issue on the agenda of the loose "environmental" conference in October, M. Sarkozy has gone further than any previous president or prime minister.

The French anti-corrida forces hope to drive a wedge into the monolithic legal defences of bullfighting by pushing for a ban on children at bullfights. President Sarkzozy has promised to consider such a change in the law.

Even some of the most vocal defenders of La Corrida in France admit that they are on the losing side of a long, slow struggle. The days of the full-blooded bullfight to the death in France are probably numbered.

With additional research by Graham Keeley in Madrid

Should bullfighting be banned?


* Bullfighting is a loathsome and barbarous survival from uncivilised times

* Putting an animal to death in public for popular entertainment is immoral

* There is no genuine, ancient tradition of bullfighting to the death of the bull in France


* Bullfighting is a noble conflict between man and beast which recalls our primeval origins

* Without bullfighting, the entire breed of cattle used in La Corrida would be destroyed, not just individual bulls

* Bullfighting is part of the local culture and should not be sacrificed to a uniform, global culture of sentimentality about animals

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