Bloody bullfights resurge in France, spur protests

August 23, 1993|By New York Times News Service

ARLES, France -- Hubert Yonnet breeds bulls and horses on the Camargue's wild marshlands, where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean. Cowboys ride his ranch, birds squawk overhead, and change comes with the cadence of the seasons. But the steady life on the Yonnet ranch is now affected by a turnabout of tastes in this earthy part of southern France.

The tradition of bullfighting, which had diminished to a trickle, is coming back with vigor. It has already increased the demand for Yonnet bulls and for several seasons filled this region's arenas with roaring spectators.

People here agree that the revival is significant, but no one can quite explain it. Just when France is professing a greater love for nature and animals and supports environmentalists, a growing number of people are paying substantial amounts -- $40 on average -- to watch the slow killing of powerful beasts.

"A man wanting to test himself before a bull is perhaps unusual, even remarkable, in our time," Mr. Yonnet said, searching for an answer in the office where he organizes events in the Arles arena.

Philippe Gromelle, a fan who does not like to miss any fights, said: "Bullfights are real and passionate, not cold and distant like television."

Marie-Jose Justamond, an agent for such musical groups as the Gypsy Kings, described the revival of bullfighting as part of a broader cultural rebellion. "American images and music and movies have dominated for so long," she said. "People here are going back to their local, their Latin roots. We also see this in

music."

The bullfighting season in Arles attracted 120,000 spectators this year, compared with 30,000 about five years ago. Fights now fill up the town's majestic Roman amphitheater, a legacy from the time that Arles was the capital of Gaul.

In nearby Nimes, the traditional rival of Arles, the bullfighting season has likewise blossomed and filled its own Roman arena. Nimes boasts of drawing people from as far away as Marseille and Lyons. Festivities such as the running of the bulls and fights are also up in Beziers, Frejus, Dax and other small towns in Provence and Languedoc, France's bullfighting regions.

Of course, not everyone in France applauds this age-old custom, in which a session usually ends, Spanish style, with the killing of six bulls and, on occasion, with the wounding or death of one of the fighters. An opinion poll last year indicated that three out of four French men and women were not in favor of the practice, with about half calling it cruel or barbaric.

With the revival, the Society for the Protection of Animals has stepped up its campaign against the fighting. "If we cannot stop it, we want to make sure that it does not spread," said Jacqueline Faucher, the society's president.

French law forbids bullfighting and cockfighting, except in towns with a long-standing tradition. In March, the society tried to block bullfighting in Tarascon, saying that the town had lost its rights when it interrupted its tradition for several years. The court ruled in favor of the fights.

Mrs. Faucher and others assert that tradition is no justification for continuing a spectacle that often involves more than 20 minutes of torture and suffering and the slow death of an animal.

"Part of civilization is to break bad habits," Mrs. Faucher said, noting that in the name of civilization France has abolished the death sentence and live pigeon shooting. "To honor tradition," Mrs. Faucher snapped, "we could also be throwing Christians to the lions."

From his desk, Mr. Yonnet can see the Roman amphitheater, which he manages. The building carved from rock has survived 20 centuries and is coping well. He believes bullfighting will not go away easily.

"Men want to show their strength, and so do bulls," he said. "We are not that different."

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