Marsh of time

Hunting in France is a distinctly more egalitarian activity than it is in this country. But it is becoming an increasingly political activity too

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On a bitingly cold morning on France’s Atlantic coast a small group of people huddled on a low-slung clifftop, peering down at a strip of marshland that lay between them and the sea. Below them, unseen but for the eerie fidgeting of their paths in the 8ft-high reeds, a group of beaters and a pack of hounds combed the corridor of land trying to flush wild boar.

Suddenly the baying of the hounds gained urgency. A thrill passed through the watchers on the clifftop, and then gasps as an enormous black boar burst onto open ground, impressive in its sheer size and steaming mammalian presence. It paused, surprised to find itself exposed, and then heaved around and barrelled back into the reeds. The pack followed and the commotion receded towards the other end of the marsh.

The little group moved back from the cliff edge, breathlessly discussing the grand animal they had just seen. Gérald Labéy, director of the Charente-Maritime Federation of Hunters, shook his head incredulously and said: “You know there are actually people who think that instead of hunting them we should catch them and sterilise them. Well, bon courage!”

“The citizens of France have forgotten that their own freedom stops where that of the other begins.”

The suggestion comes from the increasingly vocal anti-hunt movement in France, where the debate over la chasse has reached a new pitch. For centuries the hunt has been respected as an integral part of the rural life that French culture draws so much from, and there are still over a million registered hunters in France, the most of any European country and a significant voting constituency. But public opinion is changing and more and more people see hunting as unnecessary, cruel and a threat to public safety.

An IPSOS poll last year found only one in five respondents to be in favour of hunting, and an overwhelming majority in favour of bans on types of hunting considered to be particularly cruel. The hunters have put up a spectrum of arguments in their defence, ranging from sentimental musings on man’s communion with nature to the practical necessity of controlling crop-damaging animals, such as wild boar. But, as the debate has intensified, many among them have come to feel that the critiques are an expression of a more generalised hostility towards a traditional French identity.

It’s a sentiment that echoed around France ahead of the presidential election in April, and one that the right and extreme right played on to gain ground. Speaking ahead of the poll, Labéy said: “Each of the candidates, whatever their party, has been asked what their position is in relation to hunting. That is something new and it shows that hunting is becoming emblematic.” But emblematic of what?

On another bright, freezing morning, Jean-Bernard de Larquier drove through the fields of grapevines that flow over the landscape of Charente-Maritime all the way to the clifftops and beaches.

“The main point of the hunt is human connection,” explained the vintner and cognac producer, a man in spritely middle age with a quick smile that softens the air of authority in his tone – an authority perhaps reflecting professional success but also of someone sure of their place in the world.

De Larquier, who comes from an affluent family established in the area since 1620, had just read out a briefing to 19 hunters gathered outside a drab, two-room hunting cabin in the village of Arthenac. The cabin stands on Rue Dr Emile Larquier, named after a mid-19th century mayor of Arthenac who moved in radical anti-monarchist, anti-clerical circles and was J de Larquier’s great-great-grandfather.

“In the city you can live without regard for the other,” he continued as he pulled up on a forest track where several orange-vested men and a pack of hounds milled about. “Work in the countryside obliges you to be in contact with others but the mechanisation of farming has diminished the rural population. You see, today we have 19 hunters out. Thirty years ago we had 66 in this commune. Even when our children get a taste for it, eventually they leave to study or work and that’s it.”

Until the French Revolution the right to hunt in France was the exclusive reserve of nobility, and there are certain aspects of la chasse that hark back to its royal lineage – notably chasse à courre, a particularly drawn-out and sadistic ritual in which an animal is chased to exhaustion by hounds and hunters on horseback dressed in aristocratic regalia, and then despatched by stabbing. For a long time however, most hunting in France has celebrated a distinctly egalitarian character. Charente-Maritime operates a system of chasse communal meaning that properly permitted hunters have the right by default to hunt across private property. A landowner may close their property to the hunt but they then become liable for damages to crops caused by animals that come from their land. (Otherwise it is the hunting federations that compensate farmers, at a cost nationally of some 77 million euros per year.)

De Larquier, who learned to hunt with his great-grandfather at the age of ten, moved around checking that everyone was conforming to the innumerable regulations that apply to the hunt today. He chatted as easily with Claude Chaumet, the oldest present at 74 and one of the more passive participants, as he did with Florian Langlois, a quiet 19-year-old with a moustache that didn’t quite confer as much gravitas as might be intended.

“It’s changed enormously,” said Chaumet, a retired house painter who has hunted since his father taught him at 12 years old. “And not always in the right direction. Nowadays you have four pages telling you what you can’t do and four lines telling you what you can.”

De Larquier commiserated, echoing a phrase used by President Macron to criticise the unvaccinated. “The citizens of France have forgotten that their own freedom stops where that of the other begins. For people today it’s: ‘I think this so everybody should think this.’”

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Although in the past the everyman character of the hunt has expressed itself in support for the left, this has been changing in recent years. The political voice of the hunters is by no means monolithic but today it skews heavily towards candidates who appeal to the notion of a traditional way of life threatened by the direction of modern France, and they tend to be the candidates of the right.

Nowadays hunters are quick to characterise the left as aligned with the dreaded ecologists. Sebastian Lys, co-ordinator of the boar hunt in the marshes, explained bluntly that hunters, feeling besieged and equating the activity with their cultural identity, feel driven to the right.

“It is impossible for a hunter to vote for a candidate who is the least bit anti-hunt. If a candidate is anti-hunt they are anti-countryside. The left is anti-hunt so we can’t vote for the left.”

“I think the debate over hunting is the visible part of the iceberg,” said Labéy. “Hunting is coming to symbolise the attachment of a good part of French society to their traditions, to the land, to their identity. We feel that our culture is in danger because there is another part of the population that doesn’t understand the attachment to these values.”

A brisk ex-army officer with an intellectual, somewhat sensitive aspect, Labéy is not himself a hunter despite his position at the head of the Charente-Maritime federation. A good part of his job is acting as an interpreter, speaking for a constituency that lead relatively offline lives and often do not even understand why they are being attacked. Christophe Marie, spokesperson for animal rights group the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, said: “The strongest rejection of hunting comes precisely from people living in the countryside. To say it’s rural people against urban people is simply a political manipulation by the hunters.” And even Labéy acknowledged that “things are not quite that dichotomised”. But he claims that much of the rural opposition to hunting comes from ex-urbanites.

Second homes constitute a significant amount of rural property in France and in 2020 estate agents made record sales to people wealthy enough to escape an urban life that the pandemic had rendered intolerable. The question for Labéy is whether these new arrivals will try to mould their environment to the preferences they bring with them from the city. He returned to the theme that seems to underpin almost every aspect of the hunt in France.

“Often city people come to the countryside searching for community but in doing so they destroy the very thing they search for.”

In the woods outside Arthenac a shot was fired amongst the trees and de Larquier’s walkie-talkie crackled with a hunter reporting a kill. A small greyish-tan doe, about the size of a large dog, lay amongst the dead leaves and ivy, rather beautiful despite the fur that had been pulled out and scattered by the pack. Looking at this small, delicate animal, it was hard to see the hunters’ often professed love for nature in the competition between it and a dozen or so men with dogs, rifles and walkie-talkies.

By noon another deer had been taken and the hunters returned to the cabin. There the animals were weighed, skinned and butchered by four of the elder hunters, who unfussily performed the gory process of abstraction whereby an animal is turned into something you might recognise in a supermarket. Outside, bottles of local liqueur were passed around while De Larquier, Labéy, Chaumet and the others exchanged jokes and discussed plans and problems.

The butchers emerged to distribute the cuts of meat and the group cheerfully dispersed in beaten-up old white vans. Apart from the two men who fired and the four who dressed the kills, most of the hunters left that day without having had anything to do with the animals that brought them together. In fact the killing seems of secondary importance to a ritual that references a whole framework of memory, place and human relations, and reassures its participants of their place in the world. The insecurity created when such rituals are lost is a political foothold that is easy to exploit.

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