Letters from abroad: Nîmes

Alec Fullerton discusses humane bullfighting in the South of France

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In his generation-defining novel Fiesta (or The Sun Also Rises),Hemingway exalts the passion and courage on display in the Spanish corridas of Pamplona. Yet, it is his non-fiction work ‘Death in the Afternoon’, published six years later in 1932, that is considered a fundamental guide to the history of bullfighting, even by real enthusiasts. In it, he writes, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.” As a keen reader of Hemingway, when I stumbled upon a poster advertising the final of Le Trophée Taurin, I knew I had to go.

For my year abroad, I’m teaching English in a lycée in Nîmes, referred to as ‘The French Rome’ due to its Roman heritage. Consequently there are several Roman monuments, including Les Arènes, a Roman amphitheatre—in fact, the biggest and best-preserved one outside of Italy. Because of this, Nîmes is considered to be the capital of French bullfighting. Previously, I’d been to one bullfight before, and it was a traditional, rather grisly, corridas in Seville. So when I made my way down to the arena one Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, past overflowing bodegas with sangria-sipping crowds spilling out onto the bustling streets, I was fully expecting a similar experience, a culturally intriguing and enchanting spectacle, coupled with the bitter aftertaste of cruelty and death. However, I was to be pleasantly surprised.

Completely by chance, that afternoon I was about to discover La Course Camarguaise, or bullfighting à la Française. As opposed to its bloody Iberian counterpart, French bullfighting doesn’t end with a dead bull. Whilst a traditional, Spanish bullfight consists of various rounds of pageantry, designed to weaken and taunt the bull, resulting in its inevitable death, but with La Course Camarguaise, it’s different. For starters, instead of matadors and picadors, the format is far simpler. For 15 minutes, a group of men (Razeteurs), kitted out in Pamplona-style outfits, compete amongst each other to remove ribbons from between the bull’s horns. In return for their courage and sheer disregard for their own safety in grabbing these ribbons, they are awarded cash prizes.

The real enjoyment of this comes from the bravery of the Razeteurs as they evade the horns of the bull, often narrowly. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of the fun also comes from secretly willing the bull to finally catch up with one of them. With this version of the bullfight, it ends up feeling more like Total Wipeout than ritualistic blood sacrifice. Another very telling difference is that, whereas before a Spanish corridas, posters advertise the names of the matadors, with La Course Camarguaise, it is the bulls’ names instead that are listed. Hemingway wrote: “Anything capable of arousing passion in its favour will surely raise as much passion against it.” But as the passion against it appears to increasingly outweigh the passion for it, perhaps La Course Camarguaise provides a more humane alternative, whilst preserving the cultural significance of bullfighting for many communities.

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