Imported from Spain in the 19th Century, bullfighting remains popular across large parts of southern France.
Now, for the first time, a proposal to ban the “corrida” has reached the floor of the National Assembly – a sign of public sentiment shifting in favour of animal rights.
Sponsored by the far-left Nupes alliance, it faces an uphill battle.
The government officially opposes a ban and pro-corrida MPs promise to talk the measure out of parliamentary time.
Though many in President Emmanuel Macron’s party are personally in favour, the Élysée Palace is wary of a ban, believing it would exacerbate tensions between city and country, and Paris and the regions.
The text of the bill was drawn up by Aymeric Caron, a former TV presenter who founded an animal rights party and won a Paris seat under the Nupes banner in this year’s parliamentary election.
In its preamble, the text quotes a veterinary committee’s report that “by causing avoidable suffering and leading to the killing of animals… for the sole purpose of entertainment, bullfighting is in no way compatible with respect for animal welfare”.
Supporters of a ban point to opinion polls suggesting that more than 80% of the French want an end to bullfights that lead to the death of the animal. Even in bullfighting towns, this figure is 61%.
Corridas are protected by a 1951 law, which made regional exemptions to the general outlawing of cruelty to animals. Thus in regions where there was a proven continuous tradition of bullfighting – essentially a swathe of territory from Nîmes to Bayonne – it was allowed to continue.
But one of the main pro-ban arguments is that the Spanish-style bullfight is not an old tradition in France at all, having only been introduced in 1853 to please Emperor Napoleon III’s Spanish wife Eugénie.
Mr Caron says his bill does not take aim at the connected but different practice of courses taurines – bull-runs and other entertainments – that have existed in parts of the south for much longer.
Defenders of French bullfighting demonstrated last weekend in many of the 45 or so recognised villes taurines (bull towns) like Arles, Mont-de-Marsan and Dax.
Their main argument is that the corrida is an art form rooted in local society, and that banning it would be to trample over tradition and threaten jobs. For them, Aymeric Caron is the epitome of the metropolitan moralist they despise.
Corrida supporters also point to the “hypocrisy” of a society that sanctions factory farming and the mass production of meat, but cannot stomach the notion of a public death for fighting bulls, reared in freedom.
Anti-corrida activists have grown in influence in recent years, but previous attempts to introduce a ban have failed to come before parliament.
With 131 members, the Nupes coalition is using an opposition day in the Assembly to put forward a number of bills, including the bullfighting ban. Because President Macron’s Renaissance party and its supporters do not have a majority in parliament, these opposition initiatives have a stronger chance of success than in normal times.
All the parties are divided on the question, including Nupes, many of whose Communist members will vote against. The far-right National Rally is mainly opposed to a ban, but it contains several members, including leader Marine Le Pen, who have strong views on animal rights.
Opponents of the bill have filed scores of amendments to this and the far-left alliance’s other bills. Since under procedural rules debate will be cut off at midnight on Thursday, there is a chance the bullfighting bill will not even come to a vote.
Bullfighting has been banned in the north-eastern Spanish region of Catalonia, some Mexican states and several countries in South America, but it is still legal elsewhere in Spain and in Portugal, as well as Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.