It is a curious axiom of politics in France, where an overwhelming majority of people live in towns and cities, that candidates need to stress how rooted they are in the provinces and how they love the countryside if they are to win national office.
So, while French politicians fervently disagree on everything from immigration to economic policy as they start their campaigns for next year’s elections, there is broad consensus that hunting wild animals, including boars and rare birds, is a worthy rural pastime deserving of government support.
Even an outcry over hunting accidents — the latest fatality was a 67-year-old man driving on the main road between Nantes and Rennes, who was struck in the neck by a stray rifle bullet — failed to dampen the enthusiasm of most politicians seeking the votes of the nation’s 1m licensed hunters. One of the few to break from the pack is Yannick Jadot, presidential candidate for the French Greens, but the hunting ban he proposes would apply only at weekends and during school holidays — not to preserve animals, in other words, but to save hikers and cyclists.
All five of the leading politicians of the conservative Les Républicains party are dismissive of such a ban, which they argue is variously a slippery slope leading to a total prohibition, an assault on “an ancestral tradition”, and an infringement of one of the people’s liberties achieved by the French Revolution, before which hunting was the preserve of the king and the nobility. Xavier Bertrand, the LR president of the northern Hauts-de-France region, has taken particular pains, arguing that hunters are “guarantors of our biodiversity”.
Hunters are certainly needed to control exploding populations of wild boar, which routinely damage crops, and roe deer. In the 2019-2020 season, 800,000 wild pigs and more than 600,000 deer were shot. When it comes to wild birds, however, the claim by the hunting lobby that its members are guardians of nature is worse than dubious. France allows more than 60 bird species to be hunted, far more than any other EU state, and the number includes 20 rare ducks and other birds on the endangered species list kept by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Yves Verilhac, who heads France’s League for the Protection of Birds, says the group has now succeeded in gaining short-term reprieves from the country’s State Council for only three of those 20 — the black-tailed godwit, the European turtle dove and the Eurasian curlew. The Council has already outlawed the traditional practice of using glue traps to catch songbirds, a decision that prompted Willy Schraen, president of the National Federation of Hunters, to complain that “punitive action against the countryside continues”.
Claims by hunters, and by the country’s politically powerful farmers, that they are guardians of nature have also been called into question by their hostile reaction to the growing presence of rival, non-human predators. Since the 1990s, wolves that first returned to France across the Alps from Italy have steadily extended their range. All but exterminated in western Europe by a century ago, wolves now number around 600 in France. In mid-November, there was a confirmed sighting of a wolf photographed in a field west of Paris for the first time in living memory.
Brown bears are back too, reintroduced in the Pyrenees and agitating both farmers fearing for their sheep and hunters fearing for their lives. Last month, a 70-year-old boar hunter was badly injured by a bear with two cubs. He shot the bear dead, leaving the cubs motherless.
It was one more episode in a long-running stand-off between those who condemn what they see as cruel and outdated hunting practices, and those who complain about pro-animal extremists and “green ayatollahs” who do not understand rural life.
In France, the hunting lobby has the upper hand. Even Emmanuel Macron, the most urban of presidents, won favour after taking office in 2017 by halving the price of the hunting licence to €200 and offering to restart the abandoned tradition of presidential hunts on the grounds that “they represent French culture”. Such statements are unlikely to hurt his re-election campaign.
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