Bullfighting is still big in the south of France, waiting to spoil a good holiday

France is once again agonizing over bullfighting. Like Scottish independence, the banning of fox-hunting and the relegation of Morecambe FC in Britain, the issue never quite goes away – and then bursts through to the surface when you rather wished it wouldn’t. This time, TV journalist-cum-left-wing MP Aymeric Caron has brought before parliament a draft law banning all bullfighting, to be considered this week.

Caron reckons that the corrida is “an ignoble practice which dishonours us all”. He is not alone. A poll earlier this year suggested that 77 per cent of French people were opposed. They include Anouk Aimée, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot and Pamela Anderson, so Caron has the veteran good lookers on his side. Antis took to the streets in cities across France last weekend in support of the bill, expressing anger at what they reckon is a barbaric practice. Writer Christian Laborde suggested in Le Monde that “arenas are very noisy cemeteries”.

The demos were echoed by those of bullfight supporters – more numerous, it seems – decrying an attack on what is an essentially southern tradition by clueless Parisians. “The tauromachie (bull culture) is our identity, a living culture. Let us be free to live with our traditions,” said Julien Dubois, mayor of Dax — a bullfighting town if ever there was one. He could apparently call upon the support of the likes of Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, and ex-French PMs Lionel Jospin, Alain Juppé and Jean Castex.

The pursuit arrived in France in the mid-19th century, as part of the baggage of the Empress Eugénie, Spanish wife of Napoleon III. It caught on especially down in the south, from Western Provence through to what’s now Occitanie and Nouvelle Aquitaine.

It is, in fact, legally confined to those regions, and not just anywhere in those regions, either. In order to put on a corrida, a town or village has further to demonstrate an “uninterrupted bullfighting tradition”. The thinking is that bullfighting is cruel – France’s penal code says as much – but they’ve been doing it for ever in the south, so let them get on with it. We’ll make an exception. Thus, right now, bullfighting is legal in Nîmes but not in nearby Montpellier (where there have been no bullfights for years), and even less so in, say, Lille in northern France.

I’m not a natural audience for bullfighting, as I’m not for bear-baiting, cock-fighting or heavyweight boxing. But I really fell out with the pursuit when, ages ago, I went to see Marie-Sara, then a blonde and extravagantly beautiful horseback bullfighter, or rejoneadora as they say in aficionado circles. (Not the least irritating aspect of French bullfighting is its exclusive use of Spanish.)

In the Roman arena in Nîmes, Marie-Sara – then the world’s most famous female bullfighter – was squeezed into the tightest possible suit and handled her horse with bewitching skill and astonishing courage, first to taunt, then to despatch the bull. This was troubling on more levels than I could count. Later, however, I saw a couple of novilladas, combats in which aspiring bullfighters take on young bulls. At one, in Arles, the young fellow might as well have set about the bull with garden shears for all the artistry on display.