If you go down in the woods today …
France’s 1.5 million hunters represent a major political lobby. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s recent decision to order them to respect a new EU-imposed shorter shooting season is a risky political gamble. Hugh Schofield reports.
With presidential elections approaching, France's Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took a major gamble by ordering the closure of the season for shooting migratory birds - to the fury of the country's powerful hunting lobby.
The decision has been hailed by Jospin's Green party allies as a breakthrough which puts France finally in line with European law. But hunters said it was a betrayal and vowed to vent their anger in the polling booth.
"The Jospin hunting season opens on 21 April and finishes on 5 May," said Jean-Marie Scifo, head of the Association of Wildfowl Hunters in the southern Bouches-du-Rhone department, referring to the dates of the two-round election.
"That's when we will punish the source of this evil."
French hunters and environmentalists have been bitterly divided for years over the length of the bird-shooting season.
Traditionally it lasted from the start of July to the end of February but it was drastically shortened by a European Union directive, or law, in 1979.
However, fearful of angering the country's 1.5 million hunters, successive French governments failed to implement the directive, which - without being explicit - was widely interpreted as permitting a shooting season only from the beginning of September to the end of January.
Two years ago a compromise was worked out under which hunters were given limited dispensations to shoot in August and February but early in February the state council - France's highest administrative court - ruled this illegal and Jospin then made his decision.
Thus, for the first time in French history, the shooting of migratory birds has been totally forbidden in the month of February - with one minor concession permitting the hunting of woodcock and wood pigeon for a few more days.
The decision indicates that Jospin continues to set importance by his alliance with the Green party, which has two ministerial positions in his government - including the environment portfolio - and which saluted what it said was a "significant advance, made in the face of innumerable pressures".
The coalition with the Greens will be vital in the second round of the presidential vote, when Jospin needs to draw as much support as possible from disappointed first-round contenders.
But French hunters are now mobilising against the prime minister.
In European elections in 1999 their party - Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition (CPNT) - won 6.77 percent of the vote. In the northern Somme department the vote was a massive 27.06 percent. CPNT president Jean Saint-Josse, who has described Environment Minister Yves Cochet as a "green ayatollah", this week announced that he will run for the presidency and the party has said it will be fielding "as many candidates as possible" in the legislative elections that follow in June.
The party urged hunters not to defy the law but to punish the government at the polling booth. "If you go hunting now, you'll lose your hunter's card. Much better idea - use your elector's card," said CNPT official Daniel Portalis.
© Agence France Presse