As dusk fell over the seine estuary in northern France on the evening of July 21, the muzzle-flash of hidden guns lit up the gathering night. Burly men in paramilitary garb emerged from foxholes dug into the sand and set upon the gendarmes sent to investigate, driving them away with a hail of blows.
Anarchist insurrection? No, just French country folk defending what they see as
their right to hunt migrant birds and waterfowl during the closed season the European
Commission insists is necessary to protect their numbers. The hunters recently
received unexpected support from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who wrote to European
environment Commissioner Margot Wallström on July 20 complaining that the
"constraints" imposed by the Commission are "damaging the image
of Europe in a large part of rural France."
Jospin has been harassed by the hunting lobby since early last year, when his
government finally got around to transferring a 1979 European directive on the
preservation of wild birds into French law. Under threat of heavy fines from the
European Court of Justice, then Environment Minister Dominique Voynet set about
reducing France's sprawling seven-and-a-half-month open season by two-and-a-half
months to comply with the Sept. 1-Jan. 31 period required by Brussels. Voynet's
bill appeased hunting militants by allowing certain species to be shot from Aug.
10 if their numbers were healthy. The measure scraped through the National Assembly
last June. But in May this year, the Council of State ruled that these exceptions
are incompatible with European directives. As August loomed closer, the issue
remained unresolved. "Jospin wants the European Commission to decide for
him," says Philippe J. Dubois, director of communications at the Bird Protection
League. "That way, he can say to the hunters, 'Look, at least I tried
Jospin isn't known as a hunting enthusiast. But ever since the revolution
slaughtering birds and small animals has been considered a natural right in France,
where hunters even have their own political party, CPNT. And Jospin is mindful
that CPNT racked up 7% of the vote in the 1999 European elections putting
the hunters level with his Communist coalition partners. As he prepares for presidential
and parliamentary elections next spring, every vote counts. Senior Socialist Party
officials believe at least 50 of their 244 parliamentary seats could be lost if
the hunting lobby turns against them.
Yet if Jospin expected his letter to elicit a salvo of approval from the hunters,
it didn't work out that way. "This smacks of electioneering," says
Henri Sabarot, president of the cpnt group on the Aquitaine regional council.
"The Prime Minister is under pressure from Socialist deputies who can see
the CPNT vote rising in their constituencies." It hasn't won him any
friends among his Green Party allies either. Environment Minister Yves Cochet
who took over from Voynet last month called the Prime Minister's
To the Socialists, that's not playing fair. "The pro-hunting movement
has mainly appeared in constituencies where the Socialists have slim majorities,"
says a source close to the Prime Minister. "Socialist deputies are in danger
from militant hunters, but the Greens don't give a damn about that."
Indeed. When Socialist Deputy Vincent Peillon arrived to open a waste dump in
his Somme constituency last April, he was attacked by a mob of 200 stone- and
egg-throwing hunters and had to be airlifted out, leaving five wounded gendarmes
The issue cuts deeper than a few extra weeks of shooting. Now that 82% of France's
population live in towns, those left behind in the rural areas that account for
60% of the country's land are feeling increasingly abandoned. "The hunting
issue is revealing the distress that exists in the French countryside," says
Sabarot. "The country is being called upon to be a weekend playground for
city-dwellers." In that context, ecologists and wildlife preservation groups
are often seen as meddling city slickers.
As a regular target of vandalism and physical intimidation, the Bird Protection
League knows how ugly things can get. "The hunters have to understand that
nature doesn't belong to them any more than it does to other people,"
says Dubois. "We've got to save as much of the natural world that can
still be saved." But France's hunters believe that their own natural
world is disappearing. If they can't take that frustration out on our feathered
friends, they may be tempted to look for some other target. Jospin seems worried
that the prey of choice could be him.