If you think British bloodsports are bad, just take a look at the Frenchby Tim King / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
The old man from whom I bought the house did warn me. “If you’re in the garden when they start,” he said, “it’s safer to go indoors.” Since the house is a peaceful farm up in the hills of southern France where at that moment there was nothing more violent than the sound of cicadas, I assumed his warning was an old man’s mocking of the know-it-all younger generation. Anyway, Monsieur Sablier did not strike me as the type to dash indoors just because the local hunt was coming through. He shrugged at my disbelief: “They’ve taken the odd shot at me.” Then as if by way of explanation: “They’re my neighbours.” Most of the high toll of hunting accidents are put down to the settling of scores.
A paysan born and bred, Monsieur Sablier does not hunt. Nor do 97 per cent of his countrymen. But a law banning it is nevertheless unthinkable: and not only in la France profonde-the idea raises just as many smiles in my other “home”: the cosmopolitan city of Montpellier. “Hunting is an inalienable right,” says a lawyer friend, “after all, it’s a legacy of the Revolution.” My baker prefers a less intellectual reason: passion. “The hunter is consumed by it. And where passion’s concerned… Look how long the church has been trying to stop adultery.”
During the season, three days a week are allotted to hunting: Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. Employers have to schedule around employees who hunt: no question of forcing them to come to work or penalising them if they do not turn up. As I found with my builders, whom I watched trudging across my land every Wednesday when they should have been up on the roof.
The hunting day starts the evening before in the local bar. Over several beers and whiskies (only the English and characters in Pagnol plays drink pastis) tactics are discussed. The next morning (not particularly early, the sun is well up over the tops of the mountains) we meet up in the village square. Thirteen of us-12 in army surplus camouflage kit and me. It’s like a TA exercise with dogs. My neighbour Andr?reets me-another passionate man, solid, warm, permanently cheerful. His hair standing up like a silver brush, his face tanned. We were mates as soon as he saw me, newly arrived, planting out my seedlings: his other passion is vegetables. He came by with a cartload of manure. Then strawberry plants were thrust into my hand. The invitation to hunt was not far behind. I nod to all my other neighbours for whom I am just l’anglais-the man from Mars. We stand about waiting, glaring menacingly at the non-hunting residents driving snugly to market. Our group is living proof that in France la chasse is truly populaire-the right of the common man. A plumber, the village mayor, a chap who does the washing-up in the kids’ home, a foreman in local manufacturing (women’s tights and stockings), and of course, the paysans. The average age must be over 60. To a man they pour scorn on my question about some hypothetical ban on hunting. “It’s not a sport. It’s our right.” “What we won from the Revolution.”