Bullfighting: not just for the Spaniards
Camargue bullfighting may not be as well-known as the Spanish variety, but it has thousands of fans - presumably including the bulls, who don't get killed in the French version.
Lesser known internationally than its Spanish cousin, southeastern France has its own version of bullfighting with a vast following and a major difference: the bull is king and never killed.
In the Provencal-style bullfights, known as the "courses camarguaises" or Camargue races, the beast is not only adversary but also star, even hero. Many towns and villages have erected statues to bulls with the sort of honor the Spanish-style corrida would grant a toreador.
The confrontation of man and bull -- mythical symbol of raw force and virility -- is at the heart of all forms of bullfighting in Europe. But "between the Andalusian corridas and the Camargue races, the relationship between man and beast is completely reversed," said French sociologist Frederic Saumade.
In corrida-style fights, the bull is put to death by a triumphant matador. In the courses camarguaises, the spectators identify with -- and applaud -- the bull.
A major event
The game, whose origins go back to the 15th century, was only classified a sport in 1975, which standardized rules and gave players benefits like medical insurance. But it has grown to a major event in four departments that encompass such well-known tourist destinations as Arles, Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier and Marseille.
Tens of thousands of spectators now flock to more than 800 races each season, which runs from April through November 1. The most spectacular take place in the Roman amphitheaters still standing in Arles -- a picturesque town that also draws Vincent van Gogh fans to see the setting for now-famous paintings he produced during a brief stay in the late 1880s -- and Nimes.
In Camargue tauromachy, a team of men dressed in white known as "raseteurs" race around the arena trying, with the aid of a small hook, to snatch tassels and a ribbon laced around their adversary's horns.
It's the bull in these French arenas who pulls rank, drawing wild acclaim each time it thwarts the hook and romps on with tassels intact.
The best-loved are the spirited bulls who chase raseteurs off the ring by forcing them into high-speed tumbles over a 130-centimeter (four-foot) protective wall. These bulls are lauded with a ceremonial exit from the ring to music from "Carmen".
"It's their name in big print on the posters, not those of the raseteurs," said Gerard Barbeyrac, technical director of the French Federation of Camargue Races (FFCC).
So why the difference? According to Saumade, so smitten with the sport he's written a book on it, Spanish tauromachy reflects its aristocratic inventors, man asserting superiority over the untamed "savage".
Camargue races, on the other hand, were born out of a proud rural class who identified with nature, the beast, as pure and free of the "perversions" and greed of modern civilizations.
When they're too old to perform, the top bulls -- actually steer or "cocardier" in local jargon -- are put to pasture in a coddled retirement. Some, like the 1920s star "Sanglier", meaning wild boar, live on in local legend thanks to plaques or statues recalling their fame.
The less illustrious end up like many cattle, in the slaughterhouse.
Got to be brave
The raseteurs must "above all be brave," local experts say. "Of course, they have to be quick and agile to escape when pursued by a bull, but a guy who can run a good 100-meter (yard) stretch but has no courage won't go far," said Max Zaffaroni, a former raseteur and now instructor at one of the top raseteur schools, in Fos-sur-Mer.
Since 1985, three raseteurs have died in the ring, gored to death. "The public likes the drama. If there were no risk involved, the Camargue races would die," said Barbeyrac.
The uncontested star for the last five years, 27-year-old Sabri Allouani, understands the risks. The svelte, fine-featured young man wears scars on his arm and concedes "you can never rule out suffering a serious injury".
The son of Algerian immigrants, he has been dubbed the "Zidane of the Camargue races" after France's famous Algerian-origin soccer star Zinedine Zidane. Though he's flattered, "this makes me laugh because Zidane is the star of an international sport like soccer while the Camargue races are only known in southeastern France."
Marred by racism
His background at times marred his path to glory in a region where heavy immigration from former colonies has fueled support for the right-wing National Front, a party slow to accept today's multi-racial France.
"When I hear the insults, they make me stronger but afterwards it bothers me," he conceded.
Though raseteurs are paid a price for each race and a bonus for each tassel, Allouani is one of only three or four who actually make a living from the sport.
To some extent a victim of its own popularity, the number of races are increasing and aficionados contend the quality is down. "In the summer, we're organizing extra races each week because lots of tourists are now coming," said an official in Arles.
But no one's complaining. The sport today generates some 30 million euros (38 million dollars) for the region, said FFCC president Henri Itier.
AFP / Expatica
Photo credit: Orhbeliever / The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Expatica.
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