The setting is classic.
The sun pounds
down on the yellow sand of the crowded and flag-draped arena. The
excitable crowd shouts its “Olés” of approval. The bulls snort and paw
the ground. The picadors, astride their superbly trained horses,
skillfully blunt the toro’s initial charges with their long wooden
lances. The banderilleros dance around, deftly weakening and enraging
their foe by planting their barbed shafts in his shoulder muscles.
the matadors, resplendent in their sumptuously braided and
tighly-fitting costumes, strut and posture gracefully as they face
their opponents in a battle in which the bull almost always is destined
to be the loser.
Are we in Spain here? In Mexico?
We’re in France, where bullfighting, although not the national sport it
is in neighboring Spain, still draws sell-out audiences of hundreds of
thousands of fans to the series of corridas that dot the summer-season
calendar throughout much of the nation’s southland.
from the language in the stands, French instead of Spanish, the
bullfights themselves, and the entire culture known as tauromachie that
surrounds it, from the training of young future matadors to the careful
and lucrative breeding of the bulls they encounter, easily could be in
a Spanish setting.
There are a few local
variations, of course. Much, although far from all, of the tauromachie
culture centers around the region of Provence and the
bull-raising farms of the swampy Camargue region west and north of
There, annually during the
season, are myriad local tauromachie-oriented events such as La Course
Camarguaise or La Course Libre, where the bulls are turned loose in the
streets, much as they are in Pamplona in Spain each July. The event
provides an opportunity for the local men and boys, dressed by
tradition all in white, to test and affirm their manhood by trying to
snatch away or attach various ribbons and emblems to the horns of bulls
on the loose.
Although roughly 90 percent of
the bulls in French arenas are raised in Spain, real bullfighting
afficionados can easily distinguish those from the Camargue region
because their horns point upward rather than forward as do those of
get much of their notoriety from their bull-fighting ferias and
pageants, which run, in general, from April through October. However,
well more than 40 other towns or villages in southern France still
stage some form of bullfighting. In all, the number of corridas–some
on horseback, some on foot, some permitting and others not permitting
the slaying of the bull–and many in makeshift arenas quickly
constructed and capable of being just as quickly taken down after the
event, run close to a hundred each year. ..
such as Ernest Hemingway and painters such as Pablo Picasso often were
spectators at the corridas in France, which are scarcely minor-league
affairs. They long have attracted–and still do attract–some of
Spain’s top matadors. Legendary stars such as Louis Miguel Dominguin, a
friend of Picasso, often appeared in France, and equally famous El
Cordobès was injured during a corrida in Nimes in 1964.
which sports a bull-fighting arena constructed as a coliseum during
Roman times, recently opened a nearby museum devoted to bullfighting,
Le Centre français de tauromachie. The city also is sponsoring, as a
main tourist attraction this year until September 7, an artistic
exposition suitably designated “Toros, Women and Artists,” Des
Taureaux, des Femmes et des Artistes.
course, it is the men who dominate the bullfights. But a few women–a
very few–have managed to pierce the inner circle. France has one
with its blond and attractive Marie Sara, one of the rare women
bullfighters of international prominence. She announced her retirement
from the arenas not quite four years ago in Arles after a last fight
executed with particular panache to mark her adieu. But this summer,
unable to resist, she returned in style to open a weekend of
bullfighting on horseback near Toulouse, where corridas have begun
again for the first time since 1976.
fascination with the strength and symbolism of bulls is well documented
back through antiquity, particularly in Greek and Roman mythology.
France, the earliest recorded contests between man and bull date back
to the 13th century. There are documents noting running-of-the-bulls
events in the city of Bayonne as early as 1289. That has led some
historians, if not necessarily all, to attribute the roots of
modern-day bullfighting to France. But bullfighting in its current form
with the matador face to face with his adversary and on foot dates back
only to the 18th century. Before that, although combat with bulls
was a well known pastime and challenge for the French nobility, the
confrontations were conducted only with the human contender on
horseback. The descent into the ring on foot, in that sense, was a sign
of a trend toward a more popular and more accessible bullfighting
In recent years, that
culture has been marked in France, however, as elsewhere in the world,
by the growth of a robust movement to protest bullfighting’s cruelty to
Already in the middle of the 19th
century, although they later were rescinded, French governmental
decrees forbade fights that put the bull to death anywhere north of a
line running roughly from Bordeaux to Avignon. At their
historical height, such combats had taken place throughout a much
larger sector of the country and extended as far north as Paris.
it often faces opposition from bullfighting fans and local merchants
and officials who view the activity as an income-producing tourist
attraction, the anti-bullfighting movement in France keeps militating
steadily today for laws that will end the practice altogether. Among
the most vocal in that regard is France’s one-time sex symbol, the
actress Brigitte Bardot. Since her retirement from films some 20 years
ago, she has devoted her life to various animal protection causes.
far, French legal decisions in the matter generally have held to the
thesis that bullfighting, particularly where the animals are put to
death, cannot be instituted in places where it is not already a
“well-established tradition.” But in places where the tradition holds,
the judges have ruled that it can continue if local governmental
administrations, in particular the mayors of the communities concerned,
give their assent.
That of course has
triggered a new flood of anti-bullfighting lawsuits mainly centered on
questions of whether a tradition in such and such an area can be
considered as “well established” or not. The anti-bullfighting
campaigners in southern France recently lost one such battle. But they
scarcely have been discouraged and the fight is certain to continue.
Meanwhile, however, the corridas– and the Olés!–go on.