French government's move to elevate bullfighting to heritage status stokes raises passions of animal rights campaigners and cultural supporters.
France divided over bullfighting heritage
PALAVAS-LES-FLOTS, FRANCE // In the shaded market beside the bullring, stallholders were selling Spanish gypsy dresses and mouthwatering Catalonian delicacies while girls practised their dance steps to flamenco guitar.
Soon, beneath warm Mediterranean sunshine, a band would play extracts from Carmen as a matador called Juan Bautista, paraded his skills with cape, banderillas and sword in the uneven contest between man and bull that is called la corrida.
But this is France, not Spain. And while the bullfight in the Camargue resort of Palavas-les-Flots reflects the continuation of a tradition dating from the start of the 18th century, the French are deeply divided on a government decision to give la corrida formal status as part of the national heritage.
Animal welfare campaigners led by the Brigitte Bardot are enraged at the measure, announced by the French culture ministry in April.
But champions of what the French call la tauromachie applaud the government for, in the words of the National Observatory of Bullfighting Culture, a historic decision that "constitutes recognition by the competent authority of the cultural dimension".
Coincidentally across the border in Spain, there have been the first moves away from la corrida. The region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, has banned the activity and public service television no longer broadcasts fights, citing "negative" effects on young viewers.
Inside the bullring at Palavas-les-Flots, at this month's start of the French bullfighting season, is ample evidence of why passions are aroused on each side of the argument.
The music, panache and athleticism of the elegantly costumed toreadors, and the crucial role of the spectators with their encouragement or disapproval of each stage of the combat, have drawn celebrated admirers ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Eric Cantona.
But opponents see only cruelty in the weakening of the bull by the picador's lances and the implanting of banderillas or decorated darts into the beast's shoulders. And the animal, as a rule, ends up dead, though even the process of killing is sometimes drawn out if the matador's aim is poor.
The bullfight at Palavas-les-Flots took the form of a duel between two men who learnt their art in the Provençal bullfighting stronghold of Arles. Bautista, who has adopted the Spanish form of his name for performance but was born Jean-Baptiste Jalabert, competed against Mehdi Savallo, the son of a Moroccan father and Italian mother.
Savallo, a rising star, proved the winner, collecting two ears cut from a bull after the kill was hailed enthusiastically by the crowd as the clean and efficient climax of a series of skilful manoeuvres.
However, "torture" was the word chosen by Bardot when her animal protection foundation was asked by the French media about the government's elevation of bullfighting to heritage status. "It is not part of our culture," she said. "Culture has to uplift man, not drag him down to his most despicable primary instincts."
She issued an open invitation to the French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, a nephew of the late socialist president, to take heed of writers such as Victor Hugo, for whom "torturing a bull is much more than torturing an animal; it's the torture of conscience".
The daily newspaper Midi Libre, published in the heart of the French bullfighting country greeted the new season with full-page coverage of the debate.
Jean-Marc Roubard, a parliamentarian from the ruling centre-right UMP party, told the paper why he had joined 50 legislators in signing a statement claiming the French republic would be better served "promoting and valuing respect for life" rather than supporting cruelty.
"The decision is incoherent with respect to the very concept of national heritage," he said, praising the Catalans of north-eastern Spain for showing the "courage" to ban bullfighting.
On the other side of the argument, Raymond Couderc, a member of the French parliament's upper house or senate, expressed delight at the government decision. He said the opposition was a response that "reduced la corrida to the killing of a bull whereas there is, in the bull's death, a symbolism common to the entire Mediterranean basin".
Bullfighting takes place in nearly 50 French towns. The first fight took place in Bayonne in 1701 but it was a century and a half before formal events were introduced. There have been attempts to have the practice outlawed and the major of Fréjus, a Riviera town with historic bullfighting associations, has already banned it.
The French government has explained that its decision arose from its obligations as a signatory to the 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and did not amount to "any form of protection, promotion or special moral bond".
Moreover, Mr Mitterrand has given hope to the anti-bullfighting lobby, telling the RTL radio programme Grand Jury he disliked the practice and had attended a fight only once in his life, 40 years ago. He also suggested the heritage designation was "no so important" and could even be reconsidered.