By Tony Todd
Bullfighting in France comes under a number of guises - but the most contentious is the corrida, a public spectacle where bulls are killed after an intricate ritual. The most famous venues for corrida in France are the ancient Roman arenas of Nîmes and Arles, although there are bull rings across the south from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast.
There are other types of bullfighting, which are largely bloodless - for the bulls at least - called course carmarguaise and course landaise, where competitors try to snatch a ribbon or rosette from the bull’s horns.Corrida, however, is something entirely different.
Imported to France in the mid 19th Century from Spain, the corrida has become increasingly popular. The tradition of pitting man against bull is an ancient and particularly Mediterranean custom.
Modern corrida, however, traces its history back to Roman Spain (Hispania). The term tauromachie, used as an umbrella term to describe all forms of bullfights, is related to the ancient killing of the sacred bull in the temple of Roman god Mithras. Many of the older arenas in Spain are near or on the site of old temples to Mithras.
The corrida involves various elaborate stages of weakening, angering, injuring and finally killing the bull. These stages are executed with elaborate and ornate ceremony, accompanied by music, in front of often vast crowds.
In the first stages the bull is stabbed in its powerful neck, after which the toreros, getting as close as possible to the enraged animal, stick razor-sharp sticks into the bull's flanks. The weakened bull is then confronted by the matador who is armed with a sword and a red cape.
The cape is used to force the bull to make passes, which eventually weakens it to the point that the matador can approach, between the horns, and deliver the fatal blow with his sword.
Corrida in France nearly always takes places around and with the feria - a festival which at Nimes takes over the entire city.
There are bullfights all week and partying in the streets every night.
The atmosphere is overwhelmingly supportive of the corrida and during the feria, every other car you see has a bumper sticker of a bull’s silhouette. Cheap seats cost €18 but for a ringside experience one can pay more than €150. The next feria takes place from September 19-21.
Corrida inspires heated debate and there is a powerful lobby in France trying to get it stopped.
Short of actually getting it banned - seen as an unrealistic short-term aim - they want to see laws stopping children, who are currently welcome at corridas, from attending.
Cruelty to animals is banned in France, but corridas - and cockfighting in certain areas - are allowed where there has been an “unbroken tradition of the activity taking place.”
Watching the bullfight
The first bull enters the ring in front of a capacity crowd in the beautiful 2,000-year-old Roman arena in Nimes.
Toreros waving pink capes shout at the animal, getting his attention and drawing him into the centre.
While these first tentative passes are made, the matador evaluates the strength of his the toro.
The furious animal, with one dart already sticking out of its back, charges the toreros who jump behind the protective barriers.
The crowd is silent. The atmosphere is electric and full of expectation.
Like a scene from Don Quixote, two picadors - mounted toreros - holding long spears, come into the ring.
Their horses wear thick armour at their flanks and are blindfolded. The bull charges one horse, its horns trying in vain to gouge the animal beneath its forelegs. The picador spears the bull in the muscles between his shoulders and the morning's first blood begins to glisten on its black back.
The second instalment begins. Three toreros, each carrying one-metre-long banderillos - wooden stakes with barbed blades at the end - take turns to approach the bull.
They shout to get the animal’s attention, run towards him and plant the banderillos in its back, to tremendous applause.
Now it is the matador’s turn.
With his red cape (thus coloured so that the blood does not show up) he encourages the bull to charge him. The furious beast readily complies but is obviously weakening and stumbles occasionally.
Music starts from the bandstand. The conductor keeps an eye on the action so that the band keeps time with the performance.
The matador’s fight with the bull is almost balletic in its elegance.
His movements seem effortless as he weakens and hypnotises the bull. After a few passes the bull stops, the matador points at it, then turns his back and walks away, strutting and waving to the crowd. He goes back to the bull and the dance begins again. The bull gets weaker at every pass.
The bull stops again and the matador approaches. There is a hushed silence in the arena. He raises his sword slowly above his head, stands on tiptoes and thrusts it between the shoulders and into its lungs.
The bull coughs dark blood all over the sand. The matador uses another sword to pluck the first one from the stricken animal, which collapses and is given the coup de grace from one of the toreros - a stab in the back of the neck that finishes the fight. The bull’s final spasm brings home the reality of this public killing.
An elderly couple sitting next to me stand up and walk away in disgust.
Eager to get a quote from someone (there was no sign of anti-corrida demonstrators anywhere in Nimes) I ask them what they felt was wrong.
The bull, apparently, was “rubbish” and had not put up enough of a fight; he had “brought dishonour on himself and the ring.”
A team of horses comes into the arena. They drag the bull away by the horns in a trail of blood. The crowd jeers the bull (the more aggressive bulls get cheered as their carcasses are removed).
The whole process, from introducing the bull to the ring to its final bloody death, takes about 25 minutes.
As soon as the sand is brushed and the debris of the fight is cleared up, another bull enters the ring, to be faced by a different matador.
Five more will be killed one after the other in the blazing mid-day sun.
To this uninitiated first-timer the corrida experience was astonishing, surreal and full of paradoxes. The atmosphere was intense, the action was exciting and in many ways the event was exquisitely beautiful.
And then you remember that this is a ritualised slaughter, and that if one thing is always guaranteed, it’s that the bull is going to be killed, every time (it is not uncommon for matadors to get gored, sometimes to death).
Not wanting to be partisan, and being fascinated by a culture that actually allows this kind of thing to happen, I nevertheless want to see a corrida where the bulls can satisfy the crowd; to see if it is possible to feel that the bull has actually “honoured” himself and the ring by putting up a better fight.
Maybe that is why corrida is enduring, insidious and dangerous: it’s made me want to go again.
A tourist sign in English gives some of the Roman-era history of the arena: “All day long, to the roars of the crowd and the sound of trumpets, the arena staged one show after the other: animal fights, hunts, executions and, topping the bill, gladiatorial contests.” Some things have not changed in 2,000 years.
A proud pastime or cruel anachronism?
André Viard started training as a torero at the age of 13. The former matador now edits Terres Taurines - the leading French review of tauromachie.
He said the corrida, and bullfighting generally, are an important part of French and European culture and are traditions that should be respected.
He said: “Although corrida came to France from Spain, competitions of man against bull go much further back than that.
“Man has pitted himself against beast, particularly bulls, for millennia.
“Bull games have always existed in France. Corrida plays a big part of our culture and has huge symbolism.
“It is about man proving his worth over a wild animal. The bull is a wild and redoubtable animal, and the fight is about man measuring up against him. We respect the bull as a combatant. He is not a victim.”
Mr Viard also pointed out that corrida has bought huge economic benefits to the towns that hold them. The ferias - festivals - which take place at the same time, he argues, would not exist without the corrida.
More than a million people visited Nimes during the Pentecost feria in May. The arenas were filled to capacity for every corrida.
He added: “This demonstrates two things. Firstly, the big bullfighting towns do the majority of their tourist trade in this period, so it is a big benefit. Secondly, it proves that corrida is immensely popular and there is a huge weight of support behind it.”
Mr Viard happily concedes that there will be many, especially those who have moved to France from abroad, who do not approve of the corrida.
He said: “We live in a welcoming part of the world and we would hope that people who move to this area will respect the fact that it is part of our culture and our roots.”
There is a considerable weight of opinion against corrida bullfights in France.
Patricia Zaradny, president of the French national anti-corrida league CRAC, is blunt. She said: “To go to watch a bull suffering a martyr’s death for pleasure, in this, the 21st Century, is totally unacceptable.”
Mrs Zaradny points out that acts of cruelty against animals in France are punishable by up to two years prison and fines of €30,000.
However, the law also allows for activities, including the corrida, to continue “where there is an uninterrupted history of it taking place.” Remarkably, this law also applies to cockfighting, which still takes place in various parts of France, especially in the Pas de Calais region.
Cockfighting was banned in the UK as long ago as 1895. CRAC is a powerful lobby with many celebrities supporting its cause. However, there is also a great deal of political clout behind the corrida, and CRAC has little hope of imposing an outright ban any time soon.
Mrs Zaradny said: “Our big mission at the moment is to have age restrictions put in place.
“In Spain there are age restrictions - why not here in France? If you cannot go to see a violent film until you are 18, then bullfighting should not be any different. We don’t see why torturing an animal to death is something that should be allowed to be watched by children.
“Young people go with their parents, who are already deeply part of the corrida culture, and they therefore grow up to see it as something acceptable.
“Adults who go for the first time tend to be disgusted by it. If we can stop children attending the corrida we have a better chance of breaking this vicious circle.
“We know that it will take time to bring about a change in consciousness but it is an important step. If there are many more against the corrida in a generation, it will be easier to stop."
Photo: André Viard