November 24, 2022 at 3:30 a.m. EST
VAUVERT, France — The sound of horns clanging against a metal enclosure could be heard as hundreds of spectators arrived at a makeshift arena in a pine grove.
While adults indulged in bottles of wine, children bounced across an inflatable amphitheater on a plastic bull with blood-red eyes. Soon, Charles Pasquier would face off against a real bull. But the 26-year-old bullfighter appeared relaxed as he worked the crowd before the contest.
Ten years ago, an event like this wouldn’t have attracted many people his age, he said. But now, “an enormous amount of young people are returning,” he marveled. “There’s a wave of renewal.”
Although these kinds of spectacles are in retreat in Spain and in Latin America, and although polls show as many as 77 percent of people in France want an end to bullfights, the sport is seeing a surge of popularity in southern France. It would be a surprise if lawmakers side with the critics on Thursday, when the French National Assembly is scheduled for the first time to vote on a proposed ban.
Even some animal rights groups admit the chances of a win are slim, as politicians across the political spectrum fear a rural voter backlash.
French President Emmanuel Macron told an audience of mayors on Wednesday that there wouldn’t be a ban. “We must move toward a conciliation, an exchange,” he said. “From where I stand, it’s not the priority at the moment. This subject must progress with respect and consideration.”
Up for debate is whether France’s animal welfare law should be amended to get rid of exemptions for bullfighting and cockfighting in places where they are “uninterrupted local traditions.”
Critics question the notion of bullfighting as inherently French. Although the oldest record of bull running in France is from 1289, the bloody Spanish-style corrida, they note, was imported for the benefit of the Spanish-born wife of Napoleon III in the 19th century.
For a time, the contests prospered across France, with major bullrings erected in the Parisian Bois de Boulogne park and in other cities. But it is only in southern France, near the border with Spain and along the Mediterranean, that bullfighting continues today, drawing about 2 million spectators each year, according to the National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures.
Animal rights activists argue that the practice has no place anywhere in modern times. They say the bulls die slowly and painfully, repeatedly stabbed in the neck and shoulders. Between 800 and 1,000 bulls are killed in French contests each year.
Nathalie Valentin, 56, said the one time she attended a bullfight, she was so shocked she ran out
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