In the United States, everyone has heard of the National Rifle Association and possibly even the names of the other pro-firearms rights groups. The NRA is the big guy and has a significant reputation for lobbying and political action.
In France, there is no parallel. But French sportsmen, fed-up with gun control and ever greater restrictions on hunting, have taken a different tack: Theyve created their own political partyand proved their clout at the ballot box.
In elections to the European Parliament held last summer, the Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Traditions party (CPNT are its French initials) racked up a surprising 6.8% of the vote, as much as the Communists and more than the far-right National Front, according to the Los Angeles Times.
North of Paris, in the departement, or administrative district, of the Somme, hotbed of the sportsmens protest movement, the new party swept 27% of the popular vote, a national high. In all, CPNT holds six of Frances 87 seats in the European Parliament.
The latest outrage, in the sportsmens view, came on June 28, when the French Parliament passed a law banning hunting on Wednesdays, when most schools are closed in the afternoon and many children are outside. Also, private landowners now will be able to bar hunters from shooting on their property. In line with European Union guidelines, the hunting season was also shortened. It was the first serious reform in hunting laws in more than 150 years.
Ive been a hunter since 1968. Hunting for me is more than a passion, its an art of living, one indignant sportsman, Alexandre Leopold, said in a recent letter to a national newspaper. And Im supposed to let myself be treated as a criminal or a fascist by Paris salon intellectuals and environmentalists? he demanded to know.
This spring, 200 hunters unleashed a volley of stones and rotten eggs at a member of the National Assembly who had reneged on a campaign pledge and voted for the new restrictions.
Socialist Vincent Peillon, who was attending a ribbon-cutting at a garbage treatment plant near the Somme River delta, had to be helicoptered to safety behind a phalanx of gendarmes firing tear-gas grenades.
Someone could have died, Camille Marcan-Dumesnil, a local official, told reporters. Vincent Peillon came close to being lynched.
In September, angry hunters blocked the entrance to the headquarters of the Socialist and Communist parties in the English Channel port of Le Havre as well as the town hall of Octeville, also in Normandy. Some of them daubed graffiti on the buildings announcing that they would never vote again for leftist parties, which form Frances current government.
The hunters designated enemy is Dominique Voynet, Greens Party leader and Frances environment minister. Opposition to her has reached peaks of violence and downright nastiness that no other member of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospins Cabinet has had to endure.
Last year, three men claiming to be hunters set upon the 41-year-old minister in her hometown of Dole, and one punched her. Also in 1999, at least 100 self-labeled farmers stormed her ministrys headquarters in Paris. They invaded her office, ransacked her desk and scattered files from the windows.
What weve understood is that shes bent on stopping us from hunting as much as possible, asserts Jacques Houart, vice president of the Somme Bay Hunters Association.
Next year, the hunters party plans to field its own slates of candidates for municipal elections across France. And in 2002, when France chooses its next president, the mood of the hunters could prove decisive. Center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac and Jospin, his likely challenger from the left, are now running neck and neck in the polls.
If Jospin wants to win, he has to win back the votes of the hunters, predicts Christian Gricourt, an avid shooter of snipe who edits a monthly magazine for French waterfowl hunters.
The hunters mutiny has sturdy sociological and historical roots. As in Great Britain where the conflict between rural and urban attitudes has stalled a proposed ban on fox hunting and other restrictions on rural life, rural France has become increasingly wary of outside encroachments. They are unhappy with city dwellers buying up homes and land to use on the weekends as well as complex new regulations imposed by bureaucrats in faraway Paris or Brussels, headquarters of the European Union.
Before World War II, at least half of the French had firsthand knowledge of hunting or fishing because they lived in the countryside. These days, only 23% of the countrys 60 million people live outside Paris and other cities, and there are only about 1.5 million hunters.
At school, my grammar book used to contain examples where hunting wasnt presented as a harmful activity, contrary to whats happening today, complains Gilles Ondet, 54, director of a 2,500-member waterfowl hunting association in Normandy.
Perhaps most important is the persistence of memory. Just as millions of American gunowners can cite the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution by rote, in the towns and villages of France, people speak fervently of the night of Aug. 4, 1789, during the first months of the French Revolution.
On that long evening, the most historic in the annals of French representative government, members of the National Assembly abolished the privileges that the old feudal system reserved for a few. Hunting, once the jealously guarded preserve of aristocrats, became the right of all.
For many French sportsmen, the recent legislation wasnt just the tweaking of regulations, it was the abolition of traditions more than two centuries old and of hard-won gains of democratic government.
These are serious attacks on our liberty, fumes Pascal Allot, 36, a disgruntled hunter.
Forty nights a year, the lanky supermarket employee rows across the Somme River to the wind-scoured marshlands at its mouth, where he spends the night in one of 158 blinds, scanning the wide sky for ducks. With the new law, Allot says ruefully, he no longer can walk to his blind with his double-barreled shotgun loaded and ready to fire. He must carry it unloaded, a legal obligation he considers an affront to his rights as a Frenchman.
Whats happening now is disgusting, Allot says, grimacing.
Although the new legislation does leave room for some local exemptionsfor instance, for nighttime hunting and dove shootingsome hunters reject it as yet more cookie-cutter uniformity imposed by French and European Union bureaucrats.
The same law that applies to us is supposed to apply to the Somme, complains Martial Emprin, 69, a retired helicopter pilot who hunts deer, wild boar and hare 300 miles from the Somme, in the Jura Mountains by the Swiss border. This is just not possible.
In the Somme, people take birds and hunting seriously. It is paradise for people who watch birds and for those who, for generations, have loved to shoot them.
Sportsmen who cant afford to rent one of the hunting hut sites, which are passed down in local families as coveted heirlooms, wrap themselves in a waterproof tarp and bury themselves in the sand, or inter themselves in an elongated coffin blind.
Middle Class Recreation
Most people who hunt waterfowl are of modest means; they dont take vacations, they dont go to the mountains, Gricourt says. Shooting water birds is their passion, passed from father to son.
And now people realize that a government of the left is going to take away one of their liberties.
At the Environment Ministry in Paris, officials argue that such wasnt their intention at all. France is changing, and, says Jean-Jacques Lafitte, whos in charge of the ministrys division of hunting and wildlife, the new law seeks a social balance between hunting and other outdoor activitiesstrolling, bird-watching, etc.
In some cases, Lafitte says, France has been compelled to modify its laws because of conflicting European Union guidelines or court decisions. In particular, national law had to be amended to conform to a 1979 EU directive designed to protect migratory birds.
Hunting season in France varies according to species, but on average, Lafitte says, the season has now been shortened by six weeks, and opening day moved from the first weekend after July 14, the Bastille Day holiday, to Aug. 10.
As for banning hunting on Wednesdays, there are two reasons: to establish that Frances woods and fields belong to everyone, not just hunters, and to minimize the risk of accidents, Lafitte says. According to the National Office of Hunting, 42 people were killed and 187 wounded in hunting accidents in France last season.
For many hunters, the legislation is yet more proof that their Franceoverwhelmingly rural, traditional and stableis slipping away.
Despite the new law, on July 15, when hunting season would normally have opened, Guillaume Houart and three other men spent the night in the blind in the Somme River bay. They didnt shoot anything but were practicing their own brand of civil disobedience. We did this to tick off authorities, Houart says.
Ive told myself this may end in blood, yes, says Gricourt, who is also spokesman for the Somme departements hunters federation. People wont let these things be taken away from them.
Were forgetting our roots, the snipe hunter says. Hunters consider when they kill something that, well, death is part of life. But nowadays, ask kids in school to draw you a fish, and theyre as likely as not to draw you a breaded fish stick.
Crime on Upswing
Meanwhile, France is also dealing with public concern about the growing rate of violent crime. Criminals use handguns with greater frequency, even though handguns are severely restricted. Handgun licenses are issued almost exclusively for hunting.
While crime rates have been going down in the US, France has been besieged by violent crime. They are suffering the same kind of crime problems that are now plaguing the United Kingdom despite a virtual ban, not only one handguns, but most long guns as well.
Armed robberies in Paris are up 61% for the first half of 2000, according to a recent Fox News report.
French police say that countrys gun laws no longer deter the bad guys, who are frequently younger than ever before and more inclined to use the illegal firearms against the hapless victims. French authorities dont seem to have any idea of what to do while storekeepers cringe in fear.
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