UNESCO Honours French Bullfighting

France rather than Spain has become 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 coalition.

Posters distributed by those angered over the UNESCO decision on French bullfighting

The news was announced on the eve of the great Arles Féria De Los Ninos bullfighting festival which runs for five days over Easter and offers bullfighting in the spectacular Arles arena, massed brass band concerts, show fights featuring cadet bullfighters in training and plenty of eating and drinking, altogether a major tourist attraction in the Bouches-du-Rhône region.

Each year the Arles arena stages major bullfighting events (Féria de Pâques, Féria du Riz, Cocarde d’or), showcasing the Spanish and Camargue bullfighting culture “perpetuated with passion and passed down from generation to generation”, according to a spokesman for the Arles Féria organising committee.

Bullfighting Arena at Arles (Photo: Arles Mairie)

The surprise classification follows in the footsteps of the November 2010 award of UNESCO “intangible heritage” status to French gastronomy, and now ranks French bullfighting on a par with Perfume from Grasse, Tapestries from Aubusson in the Creuse and tarte tatin.

The drive to win protection through UNESCO, began on December 13, 2009, when the Union of French Bullfighting Cities (UVTF) applied for recognition by UNESCO of French bullfighting culture as part of the country’s intangible heritage. UVTF claimed that “bullfighting is based on respect for the bull’s genetic heritage, a beast which by virtue of its role in the local pastoral eco-system helps preserve many other types of animals.”

The decision has not pleased everyone. “Frankly, this is appalling”, said Claire Starozinski of the Alliance Against Bullfighting. Speaking, as it were, from the “sombre” — shaded side — of the arena she roundly denounced the new status awarded to the bullfight saying: “This shameful endorsement by the French state is an admission that our leaders do not care about the aspirations and views of the majority of French people. The bullfight is not a French tradition, it was imported here 150 years ago.”

On the “sol” or sunnier side of the Arles arena however, Andre Viard, president of the l’Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines, the national Observatory for bullfighting culture told the Midi Libre newspaper: “As of April 22, 2011, bullfighting has been listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage making France the first country in the world where bullfighting is recognised in this way. The classification is effectively an identity card for the culture of the bullfight. The Observatory has now moved on from just being on the defensive, whenever bullfighting has come under attack, to a strategy of long-term consolidation. Institutionally this award now anchors bullfighting firmly into the region’s culture”, he said.

Michel Vauzelle, the PS-Socialist President of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) region, also welcomed the decision. “This achievement is the result of a reflection followed by a report based on scientific criteria from ministerial task forces.” The Observatory claims that bullfighting reflects a significant aspect of the history and experiences of all those sharing the heritage of southern Europe and Latin America . It is also it says “closely bound up with ceremonial and festive aspects of the region’s performing arts.”

In 2006 France ratified the 2003 UNESCO Convention introduced to Safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage, and which requires signatory states to make an inventory of their national wealth, traditions and heritage. The National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures, established in 2008 in Arles then seized El Toro by the horns and pushed hard to obtain UNESCO recognition for the culture of bullfighting in the region.

However the ‘scientific’ arguments advanced by those in favour of the classification have left the opponents of the spectacle stone cold.

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.”

Opponents of bullfighting have set up several websites in French and English including:

Cas International;
Stop Corrida
and Stop Bullfighting

They seek to horrify their readers with depictions like this Youtube video clip:

These opponents however tend to overlook both the historic and the economic importance of the tradition in the region. Spanish bullfighting first appeared in France in 1701 and 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, profitable and popular.

Among other website promoting the bullfighting traditions in the south are:
MusiqueS-Arles an independent music store focused on bullfighting music.
Le Club Taurin Mouriesen
All the bullfight arenas in France, including Arles
Fans of the corrida
An online bullfighting magazine

Story: Ken Pottinger

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10 Responses to UNESCO Honours French Bullfighting

  1. Jasper P April 27, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Your headline is misleading. Unesco hasn’t awarded bullfighting France cultural heritage status. Instead it’s the French ministry of culture that has done so; meeting its obligations (as you point out) as a signatory of the 2003 convention.

    The ministry also states that it has no intention of proposing bullfighting to be included on the list.



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