Camargue Fights Catalan Bull

When Barcelona banned bullfighting late July blood ran cold in the Camargue.

In Arles the bull fights on whatever Cataluña may say

Mediterranean France, southern Spain, Portugal and bullrings across Latin America feared a mortal estocada in what to them is a way of life, a tourist attraction and a money spinner.

Hemingway’s “glorious display of courage”, now so unexpectedly emasculated by nationalist politicians in his beloved Cataluña, prompted French aficionados or afeciouna (to use the preferred Provençal) to seize the bull by the horns.

Cataluña may have banned bullfighting, (they were never more than lukewarm corridistas say critics, who compare Madrid’s 19,000 Las Ventas season-ticket holders with Barcelona’s paltry 400) but Nîmes, the heartlands of French bullfighting, was having none of it.

Reaction to Cataluña’s decision – a parliamentary vote of 68 to 55 to end bullfighting in the region and the first time the sport has been outlawed in mainland Spain – was quick and to the point.

French bullfighters hit back July 30, just two days after the Spanish news broke: “We are being told to adapt to modern times,” local adepts of la tauromachie noted. “Well we’ve adapted, we offer tickets to bullfights at popular prices- 21 euros a seat, who else offers such value,” they asked.

A statement on the Nîmes bullring website said in part: “Le Figaro newspaper writes: ‘the ban imposed by the Catalan parliament will perhaps force bullfighting better to adapt to modern times’. So how are we to adapt to modern times? In two ways we say: By selling tickets at popular prices – here in Nîmes we offer 5000 seats for each bullfight at 21 euros a place — where else do bullrings or theatres charge such prices? and by acting entirely within the law. The Nîmes bullring pays VAT on its revenues at the top rate of 19.60%. The Nîmes bullring each year pays a 350,000 euro license fee to the state. How many other arenas or organizers of sporting events pay this level of license fee?
Indeed most football clubs are subsidised (in various ways) by their local authorities which also buy ticket blocks to offer even more support. The best way to adapt to modern times, is to ensure a fair, equal deal for all of us involved in the entertainment industry.”

Nîmes was clearly laying down a marker. Money talks and the French bullfight industry is both a tourist attraction and a big contributor to the Camargue economy. Cash flowing into the Le Trésor speaks louder than any political vote-catching across the border . In turn support came fast and furious from the Madrilenos whose bullring is the world centre of bullfighting and the ganadeiros or powerful bull breeders in Portugal who have all felt the whip of animal rights campaigners in recent years. Solidarity across Europe’s bullfighting south seems to have been the first response of those who assert a deeply-rooted culture, and pit man against beast in gory defiance of more sensitive souls.

Indeed bullfighters in Madrid were soon on the offensive. Bullfighting impresario Luis Alvarez, one of the founders and leaders of the Mesa del Toro, a trade association for the defence of bullfighting said: “We will launch a major fight” against this “unacceptable” measure. He called the ban “unconstitutional” and said Cataluña had no right to “abolish” bullfighting, only a right to regulate the event. The opposition right wing Popular Party (PP), which defends bullfighting, has already said it might mount a legal challenge in the Constitutional Court. PP leader Mariano Rajoy, said he would push for a parliamentary edict classifying bullfighting as “of cultural interest”, so as to protect it from further possible regional bans. Several autonomous PP-run regions including Madrid and Valencia, have made clear they support a stand declaring bullfighting to be Spanish “cultural heritage”. The daily newspaper ABC, published a long list of text messages received calling for a boycott of Catalan products.

For as controversial and inflammatory as bullfighting has become with pressure groups in some European capitals, in the Camargue more than anywhere else in France, the bull is king.

The bull is king in the Camargue

Bulls have lived in the swamps there since Roman times, and are part of daily life. They form the core of many cultural traditions, and while the origins are lost in the mists of time they provide a spark for festivals and feast days across the region.

Spanish bullfighting first appeared in France in 1701 while, according to Liberation newspaper, the first real French bullfight was held in Bayonne on 21 August 1853.

Once the Roman arena in Arles was restored after 1825, bull fights became highly organised. The first corrida or Spanish bullfight, took place in that arena in 1853. Arles is home to a bullfighting academy with some 30 graduates learning the arts of bullfighting each year. There is also a school for youngsters keen to study the techniques of Camargue bull sports. During the summer, from July to the end of August, the Arles arena organizes Camargue bull sports every Wednesday and Friday at 1730.

So have the Camargue’s traditions anything to fear from what Cataluña has done?

The Feria de Nîmes for instance also known as the Pentecost Festival and held this year from May 19 to 24, is the highlight of festive life in Nîmes, attracting nearly one million visitors. It is by far the more important of the two Nîmes fairs. Founded in 1952, it lasts five days (Thursday to Monday of Pentecost). Like the Oktoberfest in Munich, it is one of the most popular festivals in Europe. But it is not only about bullfighting. It is the street fair, the pastis, the Fino, the bodegas, the music and the frenetic crowds on busy streets all night long that make it a major draw.

Each year in the bullfighting regions of France, hundreds of bullfights are held, with thousand of bulls killed – ten times fewer however than in Spain where bullfighting has existed since the Middle Ages. Bullfights take place in about 75 French towns and villages including Nîmes, Arles, Beziers, Bayonne and Dax. Their supporters cite the importance of culture, tradition and the associated economic benefits when they defend their sport.

After the Barcelona vote banning bullfighting there, Claire Staronzinski, a member of the French anti-bullfighting league, described it as “a symbolic vote that foretells what is going to happen in France in the near future …It shows …. an anti-bullfight feeling…and one that we also feel in our own country…”. She was joined by Brigitte Bardot, the French movie star-turned-animal-rights-activist, who said: “France must now follow their example. This is a victory of democracy over the bullfighting lobby, a victory for dignity and against cruelty.”

However happy as the animal rights movement may be, the headlines on the day the ban was voted for, made it very clear the Catalans had been motivated by political advantage and grievance far more than by the sight of blood spilt by matadores.

The reason was clear, Cataluña’s vote was a nationalistic manoeuvre coinciding with much dissatisfaction among Catalans about their treatment at the hands of the central government. In early July a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court severely cut back the devolved powers enjoyed by the Catalan Parliament which they had only won after a hardfought referendum. The bullfight has thus become a political football and Barcelona finds it useful to hide behind animal rights campaigners to achieve its own ends.

Meanwhile bullfight supporters say the ban is nothing more than a desire to be “un-Spanish” and un-macho they might have added.

“More than 12,000 bulls are killed each year in Spain and the torture must be ended,” Rafael Boro, spokesman for Equanimal, an animal rights campaign, claims.

Marius Kolff director of the Dutch-based anti-bullfighting organisation CAS said: “We hope that in 15 years, bullfighting will have disappeared from the surface of the earth. The battle is already won, as young people don’t want it any more.”

According to Chloe Baize writing in Le Monde: “ In France, Article 521-1 punishes ‘acts of cruelty to a pet or tame animal, or to animals held in captivity’. But this does not apply ‘to bullfights where local traditions can be invoked’. So by their nature bullfights in France remain ‘traditional’. A decision by the Toulouse Court of Appeal on April 3, 2000 restricted bullfighting to ‘the south of France, between Arles and the Basque Country, between the heathland and the Mediterranean, between the Pyrenees and Gascony.’ Four regions in France are covered by this exception: Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrenees, Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence-Alpes-Cote d ‘Azur.”

According to her report bullfighting is flourishing both culturally and economically in southern France. In 2007 a group of MPs called for a commission of inquiry into “the money earned from bulls”. They were said to have been scandalised by the fees of one of the best bullfighters who charged 100,000 euros, excluding TV rights for his performances and the prices at which fighting bulls are sold – between 9000 and 18,000 euros. They claimed that the bullfighting industry was not being entirely transparent in its accounting and urged an enquiry”.

Bullfighting is a popular tourist attraction. The Mayor of Arles Hervé Schiavetti, who is also chairman of United Bullfighting Cities of France, told the Catalan Parliament shortly before its recent vote: ” these traditions that integrate with important folk festivals in the south of France have great economic importance.”

Luke Jalabert Director of Arles bullring, said: “Bullfighting is a very strong manifestation of cultural identity with us here in Arles”. Among fans of the sport are ex-socialist presidential candidate Marie-Ségolène Royal, who told La Provence newspaper in 2007: “The bullfight is a magnificent sight.”

Other famous fans include Pablo Picasso and of course American author Ernest Hemingway. So what might last century swashbucklers like Hemingway – who found the fights a metaphor for honour, struggle and relations between the sexes – or South African poet Roy Campbell – whose Light On A Dark Horse autobiography details much imaginary derring-do in the Camargue – say?

The American author , who saw his first bullfight in Pamplona in 1923, has long been identified with the violent tradition, which he celebrated as “a glorious display of courage”. An article in the Christian Science Monitor, reminds us that he introduced the running of the bulls in Pamplona to the world in his 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises,” and his 1932 book “Death in the Afternoon” is looked upon as “the Bible of bullfighting.”
Despite this and again according to the Monitor: “Even in Hemingway’s time sentiments ran against the tradition and the author well understood the source of their strength. It would be pleasant of course for those who do like it if those who do not would not feel that they had to go to war against it or give money to try to suppress it, since it offends them or does not please them,” he wrote in “Death in the Afternoon. “[B]ut that is too much to expect and anything capable of arousing passion in its favour will surely raise as much passion against it.”

Quite, and it has ever been thus.

The video above shows a recent protest by anti bullfighting groups in Spain.

Some links to the festivals, traditions, culture and life of the area:

The last Templar village frozen in time.

Arles bullring programme

Arles tourism site details of its bullfighting culture

Vade Mecum of the visitor to Camargue

What would Hemingway say?

Camargue Gypsy Festival Who are the three Marys?

Story: Ken Pottinger

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