US Activist Spurs on Threatened Tourism Boycott of France over Bullfighting Traditions
A small group of anti bull fighting activists who invaded the arena and attempted to sabotage the last bull fight of the summer season in the Mediterranean town of Béziers on Sunday, was detained for questioning and identification, according to news reports.
According to Midi Libre, the local regional paper the start of the bullfight featuring Mehdi Savalli (a bull fighter of North African descent) was delayed for 15 minutes after the protestors scattered small tacks around the arena and launched stink bombs ahead of the Feria de Béziers Corrida on Sunday August 16. Four of the activists were reportedly roughed up by bullring stewards and rowdily condemned for their intrusion by a hostile crowd . One of those hurt during the scuffles was later given a certificate for three days off work.
Bullfighting across southern France is lawful and authorised. Indeed France is the first country in the world where bullfighting has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status — to the delight of aficionados or afeciouna in Arles, the French bullfighting heartlands and the disgust of Europe’s anti-bullfighting groups.
The legal disposition applies to southern French localities where the tradition forms part of an arc of bull fighting that extends to neighbouring Spain and Portugal and whose roots go back to Roman times. The beautiful bullring at Arles is classified as Patrimony of Humankind by UNESCO.
In recent years increasing numbers of animal rights activists, some more violent than others, and drawn from across France, elsewhere in the EU and even the US have launched direct action to disrupt the bullfighting traditions of southern French cities like Arles, Nimes, Nice, Béziers, Rodilhan, Bayonne and elsewhere.
Their actions some of which have been backed by the the redoubtable 60s sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, now a feisty anti-bullfighter, have drawn angry retorts from afeciouna in the regions for whom bull fighting , bulls and horses bred for fights, and the cultural traditions which permeate small towns and villages across southern France, are part of a deeply rooted culture.
Indeed four years ago there was a row headed by Brigitte Bardot after France applied for and was granted UNESCO cultural heritage status for its bullfighting tradition.
Feria de Béziers Corrida Dimanche 2015 with Mehdi Savalli
According to Carole Raphaelle Davis, an American activist — who in October 2013 threatened to launch a US-wide campaign against French tourism until (perfectly legal) French bullfighting is outlawed – “Anti-bullfighting activities are heating up in France”.
Writing at the Examiner, an online news aggregator, the Los Angeles-based animal rights campaigner claimed on August 18 2015: “Eight young ‘underground’ animal rights activists, seven men and one woman, jumped into a bullfighting arena in Béziers, France, on Sunday, to ‘disrupt’ and ‘delay a massacre of six bulls’. At the beginning of the ‘Corrida de Béziers,’ the activists jumped into the ring from the stands and ran, yelling ‘basta corrida!’ They scattered nails all over the sand and sprayed a ‘destructive chemical’ on the matadors’ costumes so that the bullfight would either be delayed or annulled and costumes rendered permanently unwearable … In an exclusive interview with Examiner, the activists, who claim to be unaffiliated with any animal rights organization, said via telephone this morning that they spent one month organizing the operation.
“One of the activists who is 24 and who wanted to remain anonymous, said that they scattered very small nails knowing there would be no danger to the bulls, but to the matadors, who wear very thin ballerina-type slippers.
“Before being hauled out of the ring by bullfighting security, they were punched and kicked. One of them was strangled so severely, he thought he was going to die, said one of the activists, 18, who wanted to remain anonymous because he is on probation for previous trespassing violations … Aficionados (bullfight fans) threw themselves on them not to extricate them from the ring but to hit them as much as they could, the activist told Examiner.”
However descriptions such as fans throwing themselves onto the intruders, and words such as “massacre”, and “strangulation” were missing from the report of the affray given in Midi Libre which reported that “Nine (not the eight of the Examiner account) anti-bullfighting activists attempted to disrupt the bullfight in the packed Béziers arena and were taken to the police station in Béziers for an identity check, before being released later in the evening.
As the video clip (above) published on YouTube shows the disturbance caused by the invasion lasted under a minute, there is no filmed evidence of anyone in the audience attacking the activists nor are there any filmed signs of activists getting near the bull fighters to spray their “suits of light”. The clean up of the tacks as shown in the video is also somewhat different from that described by the American activist report.
Midilibre quoting Thierry Hely, president of Fédération des Luttes pour l’Abolition des Corridas Federation for Abolition of Bullfights (FLAC), wrote: “it was a predictable affair, the activists realized that no measures were taken to search people coming into the Arena so they took advantage. We at FLAC do not conduct this kind of action, but I can understand there are people who find it unbearable to know that entire families head off to a bullfight to watch animals being tortured.” But he noted his concerns at the increasing number of such incidents: “One day it will all end badly, protestors risk being confronted by a lynch mob of spectators in the bullring, and then they might respond by some careless gesture in turn provoking a dangerous escalation.”
As Midi Libre concluded: “Police questioned and then released without charge the 9 invaders of the pitch on Sunday”. However the initial report fails to make clear that some of those involved have form and that one asked not to be publically identified “because of previous convictions for trespass”.
The writer of this report spent a winter in the Camargue some three years ago, and observed at close hand how deeply embedded bull fighting, bull raising and horse breeding are in the region. From a tender age young boys happily play at fake bull fighting and some go on to train in dozens of bull rings that dominate even small one horse villages around the area. Road signs, seen no where else in France, warn drivers to slow down because of various activities involving bulls and bull rings! And for the record while the bulls undoubtedly get annoyed in the bull ring they are never killed in a French bullfight, so the correct term for French bull fighters is toreador rather than matador.
For more on French and Iberian bullfighting traditions read our earlier reports:
- Horses, Bulls, Gypsies and Pink Flamingos at Home in the France’s Wild Camargue
- Camargue Fights Catalan Bull
- “Invasion forces” Repelled at Rodilhan Bullfight
- Franco-US “War” at Rodilhan Bullfight?
- French Bullfighting Beats Last Ditch Ban Effort
- UNESCO Honours French Bullfighting
- La Bardot Lashes Minister over Bullfights
- Light on the Dark Horses of the Camargue
Story: Ken Pottinger
Our summary of the state of affairs regarding the killing of bulls in French rings was insufficiently detailed. A reader and correspondent Jeanette Morris (see the comment box below this article) is correct — where Spanish-style bullfights are held in French bullrings, the fight is a fight to the death and the bull will be killed by the bullfighter (French, Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese depending on who is programmed for the event). Furthermore on 21 September 2012 the BBC, citing the French news agency AFP, did indeed report that more than 1000 bulls are killed annually in French bullrings.
Efforts to obtain the latest figures from the Arles-based Arenes d’Arles proved unsuccessful because of summer holidays. The Arles tourism office however confirmed Spanish-style bullfighting in its famous bullring ends with the killing of the bull in the ring.
Asked for figures André Viard of Terrestaurines said the total number of Spanish style bullfights in France in 2014 was 74 as shown in this graph below:
He did not offer any figures for the number of bulls killed in Spanish-style fights (Corridas) in France in 2014. But as the Arles event programme suggests between six and 12 fights per event (an average say of 9) an estimated total for 74 fights in 2014 would be 666 — still significantly below the figures reported above by AFP.
The culture of French tauromachie, which as the map below shows, takes place across a wide swathe of southern France from the Italian border to the Atlantic seaboard,is varied and colourful as this 1993 report in L’Express magazine makes clear (non-French speakers may use Google translate to get a sense of its content.)
Apart from Spanish-style bullfights, other local French traditions where bulls are not killed include the Courses Landaises – where cows are used instead of bulls and is a competition between teams of cuadrillas working for different animal breeding estates; and Courses Camarguaises, a bloodless spectacle where the aim is to grab a rosette from the head of a young bull using a small instrument. There are also bull runs, as in Pamplona in Spain, where young men (usually) seek to outrun the bull in enclosed areas or town streets and (notably in Spain) are sometimes gored or badly injured as a result.
Where the UNESCO classification is concerned our correspondent (see comment box) has oversimplified the position which we set out below in some detail.
As reported earlier, since 22 April 2011, at the instigation of then French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand (and in the face of vocal opposition by animal rights groups) French bullfighting has been listed as part of the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) of France, and thus on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
A challenge by two anti-bullfighting associations: the Comité radicalement anti-corrida Europe (Crac) and Droit des animaux , led to a long battle over this listing in the French courts. This ended with a “non-decision” by the Administrative Court of Appeal of Paris on 1st June 2015. The official court finding says in part: “Article 2: The findings presented by the associations Comité radicalement anti-corrida Europe and Droit des animaux and by the Observatoire national des cultures taurines and the Union des villes taurines de France, under Article L. 761-1 of the code of administrative justice are rejected….
Article 3: This judgment shall be notified to the (above) associations (and to the) minister of culture and communication and also to the Franz Weber Foundation and the “Robin Hood” association …”
The court’s non-decision as set out in its finding, argued that as the heritage status was no longer listed officially on the French government (Department of Culture) website, the court considered there was no case to be answered.
All parties involved in the case were thus left to interpret the outcome as they saw fit and this is what happened. Opponents of bullfighting cried victory, defenders of the tradition said the removal of the list from the website was a mere expedient without legal effect and promised to take this aspect of the matter to a higher court for clarification and a ruling. This new case has still to be heard.
The was confirmed by 5 June 2015 press release on the website of L’Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines: “Considering that the lack of the presence since 2011 of the Bullfighting heritage inventory sheet on the website of the Ministry of Culture amounted to an implied repeal of its formal registration in the French Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) list, the Administrative Court of Appeal (CAA) dismissed the arguments of the plaintiffs (the anti bullfighting associations)…this website omission is however not a prerequisite for the validity or otherwise of the registration and cannot be equated to an implicit repeal of the status which would be irregular … indeed, under the terms of the 2003 Convention ratified by France, only if the classification is revoked as a fact can it then lead to its removal from the ICH inventory.
“In May 2015 the Ministry of Culture, the sole administrative authority with authority on this subject, produced before the Cour Administrative d’Appel, a document in which it confirms the ICH registration, a document that was accompanied by that same inventory list not posted on its website and for which it had been reproached.
“For these reasons, the Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines has decided to lodge an appeal to the Council of State (the highest court in the land) seeking confirmation that Culture Taurine remains registered as part of the French Intangible Cultural Heritage (Patrimoine Culturel Immatériel français)”
Whatever the outcome (on this UNESCO issue) the decision has no impact on the practice of bullfighting itself, which remains legal in those parts of France where it has a long continuous tradition.
That does not mean the row over bullfighting in France is about to go away. As we reported earlier:
Claire Starozinski of the Alliance Anti-corrida said: “Today, as well as the preservation of historical monuments, museums, and French cuisine, our government is the only one to recognize as French Intangible Heritage, an activity punishable under the criminal code throughout the country, except in a few areas granted special dispensation. How can our Minister of Culture, a man responsible for publicly safeguarding the national heritage and making available works of art and mind, in all decency encourage the survival of anything as archaic as a public display of animal torture?”
Madame Starozinski’s blood is up and she has promised a fight without quarter, including lobbying MEPs currently seeking support for legislation in the EU Parliament, banning bullfighting.
Earlier moves in Spain, the spiritual home of bullfighting, to give bullfighting equal heritage status with buildings such as Antonio Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Alhambra palace in Granada, drew fierce opposition from the anti-bullfighting lobby. Leah Garces, director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, told London’s Independent newspaper at the time: “Bullfighting glorifies the systematic torture of a sentient animal in the name of entertainment. Culture is not an excuse for cruelty and such ‘traditions’ should be relegated to the past.”
By way of editorial comment we would also add: Those today who set out to defend cultural acquis or long-standing tradition that have become unpopular or indeed stand up for the freedom of people to choose for themselves, frequently come up against the vitriolic electronic army of virtue signallers that Twitter, Facebook and other social media have spawned.
This new ‘dictatorship’, ironically facilitated by the free-thinking, liberating force of the Internet, easily mobilises too-often ill-informed legions of mobile device-waving social media warriors capable of digitally terrorising others into submission or silence.
The classical cut and thrust of traditional debate about controversial issues is unfortunately being supplanted by digital mob rule which some will say, is detrimental to civilised society.
Harassed libertarians will hopefully continue to defend the right of all voices to be heard even those that are downright unspeakable,, for that is part of (French philosopher) Voltaire’s view on free speech.
The point above has been made frequently and by many others. Here for example is Kirk Leech, a former senior project manager with Understanding Animal Research, writing about culinary culture warriors currently on the march against fatted goose liver (foie gras). In a column here Kirk Leech cites extremist eco-warriors as yet another example of worrying illiberalism sweeping Europe. “What’s at stake here is the individual’s right to choose what to sell and what to eat. In the end, as it should, the decision to sell or consume (foie gras), must come down to personal taste, and not harassment as we pop out to the shops”.