Several recent news items in Connexion have prompted some thoughts about the place of hunting in French society.
Hunting is even in the news in the UK, as Theresa May has said that she is in favour of fox hunting and will allow a vote to repeal the Hunting Act, a promise which was in the 2017 Conservative manifesto.
Opinion polls continue to show that more than 80% of people think the ban should continue however, so perhaps she should hold a referendum and abide by the will of the people.
The position in France is a little different, but just as controversial. Although it is claimed that hunting with guns is the third largest leisure activity in numbers participating, there are several pressure groups campaigning against it.
Various news items suggest that the hunting lobby is fighting back however, in particular by attempting to attract young people. The background to this strategy is that the numbers signing up to a hunting association have been dropping year on year, from about 2.5million 30 years ago to around one million now. The average age of a chasseur has increased at the same time, as fewer young people are taking it up.
So in March 2010 the Fédération Nationale des Chasseurs reached an agreement with the then government that visits to schools by local hunting associations would be allowed. The heads of the ministries of education and ecology approved such visits for the purpose of “education about sustainable development”, which prompted furious opposition from anti-hunting groups.
I have not heard of any such visits in my area, but it was simple to find an example in the magazine Chasser en Savoie for December 2016 (Animation en milieu scholaire), complete with photo of the group of primary school children concerned.
In March of this year it was reported on the Connexion website (Free hunting attracts young chasseurs) that hunting associations in Lorraine tried to “attract fresh blood” (perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase) by offering free hunting for a year, with the result that 300 new hunters signed up.
In the same month Connexion also noted the first intake of students for the new baccalaureat course in hunting.
Introduced this year it includes learning about wild animals and how to use a gun, aspirations which separately are sure to attract children. Of course, the overall aim (pun intended) is a combination of the two, and omits the key words at the end: “on them”.
Is this a deliberate confusion of principles? The item which reported the “free hunting” initiative quoted the association as hoping to encourage young people to “enjoy closer contact with nature”.
This phrase prompted a cartoon from ASPAS (Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages) showing a hunter with a smoking gun holding up a dead rabbit and telling a group of children “now you can look at it up close” (“maintenant on peut l’observer de près”).
Similarly there are several ‘Maison de la chasse et de la nature’ around the country, usually set up by the local fédération des chasseurs with government funding. Even the national agency was re-named the “Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage”. Why the necessity to add words to ‘la chasse’ in order to suggest a general interest in nature or wild animals, when the purpose is simply to hunt them?
It does bring to mind the insistence of old-style Communist dictatorships that their country should have the word ‘democratic’ in its full title, when they had no intention of ever holding a free election.
There are also many bodies which conduct research into all aspects of wildlife and so have a wide-ranging expertise. It is difficult to see how hunting associations can claim any such specialised knowledge. After all, hunters are only experts on wildlife as pickpockets are experts on clothing.
Surely government approval of the involvement of hunting associations in schools should at least insist on the removal of any pretence that hunters are interested in wild animals apart from hunting them?
There is an issue at the heart of the French situation, however. Hunting with guns is deeply embedded in the life-style of the countryside and, like much of contemporary French culture, dates back to the French revolution. Before that, hunting was largely the preserve of the nobility and so the right of ordinary people to roam freely and hunt is jealously maintained.
Perhaps it is right that children should be introduced to the skills and traditions of hunting in a controlled manner, if it is going to be a part of their life as adults. UK expats tell me that their children have French friends who are taken hunting by their fathers, and so the skills they pick up might be sketchy at best. In the meantime they are surrounded by references to “la chasse”. Supermarkets have their seasonal displays of hunting-oriented clothing and equipment. Most communes have a hunting association which holds regular social events.
At least education might reduce the number of human deaths and injuries caused by hunters.
It is also much more of a political issue than it is in the UK. There is even a political party with a title which speaks for itself: “Chasse, pêche, nature et traditions”.
The CPNT has participated in elections since being founded in 1989 and has a handful of regional councillors and mayors. It is noted as a supporter on the election literature issued by the Les Républicains party.
French governments are certainly influenced by the hunting lobby. In February it was reported in Connexion that a new national agency to promote biodiversity had been created by merging various existing agencies, but it did not include the national hunting agency “after pressure from the hunting lobby”.
In September last year it was reported that hunting was to be restricted in parts of the Haute-Savoie, by banning it on certain days in different areas but especially on Sundays. Although hailed by anti-hunting associations as a “momentous first step”, it is notable that it was prompted by a fatal shooting of a jogger by a hunter and was only done with the agreement of the local hunting associations.
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France
According to an opinion poll in France last year, 79% of French people would like an outright ban on hunting on Sundays, so the agreement of the hunting lobby was hardly necessary politically.
This is not an argument that hunting should be banned, as not everything which is immoral, distasteful or annoying should be illegal. Otherwise half the population would be in prison for adultery, talking loudly on their mobiles or supporting Manchester United while living in Torquay.
Only when public disapproval reaches the levels indicated by UK opinion polls on fox hunting should it be time to start talking about serious restrictions on the activity.
Hunting may be an important part of life in the French countryside, but is it right that it should be taught in schools, let alone to primary school children? And should hunting associations be allowed to present themselves as experts on nature and wildlife, let alone with government approval?