Fight Over Bullfights

Beneath a hot noonday sun, Robert Marge watches six fighting bulls grazing among sparse trees. One by one they turn to face his car, snorting and showing off the 500 kilos of rage they'll bring to the ring. "Bulls are like nitroglycerin," says Marge, who raises them on his 150-hectare ranch near the southern French town of Beziers. "As long as nobody moves, they're quiet. But inside the corral, they charge--even if they die."

To much of the world, bullfighting has always been distinctly Iberian. But these days, parts of southern France are laying claim to the ancient rite. From the Cote Basque to the arenas of Arles and Beziers, the traditions of the corrida have spread to towns where bullfighting has long been banned, and been embraced with such enthusiasm you'd think the sport had been born there. The rising passion for blood and sand has been denounced by animal-rights activists. Some have sued; others have mounted protests, including one headed by Brigitte Bardot. And last month someone set off a bomb near the bullring in Carcassonne, 100 miles southeast of Toulouse. Yet France's impassioned aficionados fiercely defend their right to these mortal rituals. Bullfighting, they insist, is part of their indigenous heritage, an expression of a shared regional culture that should be protected.

The rest of the Continent should take note. The paradox of an ever-more-united Europe is that as borders between member states become less important, so do the nations themselves--and regional identities assert themselves. It's easy to forget that most European nation-states were created as we know them only during the 19th century, after a long succession of bloody conflicts. "If the chances of war had been a little different, all the regions sharing the corrida might have been together," argues Jean-Michel Mariou, a stalwart fan of bullfighting. On both sides of the Pyrenees there are Basques, there are Catalans, there are common cultures, he says. "The corrida is only one expression of it."

Bullfighting isn't the only cultural tradition that has begun to transcend borders, of course. To name but one other: the Celtic revival, built largely around musical affinities that encompass the coasts of Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, Brittany and Normandy. But while bagpipes may stir the blood, they don't spill it. And the violence of bullfighting appalls many people who don't feel they share in the culture of the corrida.

The depth of those traditions has been tested in court over the past few years, as promoters in Carcassonne and four other towns sought to join the ranks of cities like Beziers that have built a lucrative tourist trade around annual bullfighting ferias. If local courts rule that the tradition is indeed genuine, as they did for Carcassonne late last month, then bullfighting will be lawful. If not, then the ritual will be banned.

This legal battle goes back centuries. According to Roger Merlin, head of France's Federation des Societes Taurines, the oldest mention of a French tradition of bullfighting is a municipal bylaw in the Basque city of Bayonne from 1289, which prohibited the unauthorized running of bulls during a time when the city was under English rule. But the corrida as such--a fight to the death between man and bull--first gained popularity after Eugenie de Montijo (later Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III) organized one in 1853. After that, a Latin tendency to ignore unpopular laws took over. Though formally forbidden, in many places corridas flourished nonetheless, and organizers merely paid fines for their infractions. In 1951 the city of Bayonne refused to do even that. The solution: a law still in effect that permits bullfighting in the "region of tradition."

Animal-rights groups dismiss that notion. "The concept of lasting local tradition doesn't mean anything anymore," says Josyane Querelle, coordinator of the Federation de Liaisons Anti-Corrida in Agde, just south of Montpellier. Bullfighting is about attracting tourists, not honoring local history, she argues. Robert Marge doesn't see it that way, of course. He recently declined an invitation to organize a bullfight in Paris's enormous Stade de France. "We didn't want to sell our souls by bringing the corrida to a region where it doesn't exist," he explains. But he's also got the sense to know that some traditions, like nitroglycerin, don't travel well.

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris