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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

French Huntion Passion

Air Date: Week of

The French are passionate about many things. Add to the list of love, wine, and perfume, duck hunting. Tens of thousands of hunters took to the streets this year to protest the European Union's lawsuit to limit the migratory bird hunting season. Sarah Chayes reports from the Bay of the Somme River in northern France on the history of hunting in the region and the opposing viewpoints among the traditional local shooters, and the international lawmakers.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recently, the European Union decided to take one of its own members to court. The dispute is over the 1979 Wild Birds Directive, which bans hunting of wild fowl during crucial periods in the migratory season. In France, the hunting season is about 2 weeks too long on each end, the European Commission says. But the attempts to curtail hunting have stirred intense passions in France. Sarah Chayes reports.

(Splashing water)

CHAYES: The Bay of the Somme is a vast estuary that empties into the English Channel. Its broad sand flats are gentle shades of pearl gray. Handfuls of birds scatter across the cloud-filled sky. Among them, ducks and geese, winging down from the Arctic north to winter feeding grounds in Morocco or Senegal. For 150 years locals have hunted the migrating birds, hiding out in duck blinds among the reeds. Hunters here, as elsewhere in France, are ferociously opposed to the European Union's right to curtail their pastime.

(Splashing continues)

CHAYES: To get out to their blinds, hunters park on a dirt road nearby, then walk across the flats in hip-high wading boots. They're dressed in regimental khaki and carry live decoys in a gunny sack over their shoulder.

(Duck calls)

CHAYES: Christian Gricourt's blind, looks like a bunker, complete with a netting of fake leaves over the roof for camouflage.

(Sounds of unpacking)

CHAYES: Inside there's a heater and a mini-kitchen and 2 beds up against the horizontal slit in the end wall. Gricourt fits a telescopic sight onto his gun and peers out at the square pond dug in the sand in front.

(Duck calls continue, metallic sounds)

CHAYES: He's done this since he was a kid, thrilled to go out with his father. Gricourt says he takes no special pleasure in bringing home a lot of ducks. Five or 6 is plenty.

GRICOURT: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: But you have to realize that humble people hunt here. And it's true that when the father brings 10 ducks home, the mother is happy, because she doesn't have to buy meat for the children. That's why, before making lots of rules, people have to be close to the terrain to see how people live, why they do what they do.

CHAYES: The European directive says migratory birds should not be hunted during their period of reproduction or during their return to rearing grounds. In Gricourt's view, the European Commission should be leaving these sorts of regulations to local traditions.

GRICOURT: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: If the European Union exists so there will be no more wars, so people can be happy, then long live Europe. But we have come to realize that the organization is only concerned with details. The European Union wasn't capable of ending the war in Yugoslavia, but it will tell water fowl hunters they can shoot teal on July 14 or August 25? People here will never accept that. You'll get a revolution.

CHAYES: This contempt irritates European civil servants. Peter Yorgenson, spokesman for the environment commissioner, says it's logical for the European Union to have jurisdiction in this area.

YORGENSON: This is important to all member states, and it has, if you will, to do with trying to secure common heritage, of which animals and birds are a very important component.

CHAYES: The quarrel with France is over a few weeks. Experts say certain ducks haven't fledged yet when French hunting begins in mid-July. If adults are shot, their young will die. Other species are in mating couples before the season ends in late winter. European officials note that to kill birds then, when they're getting ready to move north to nest and reproduce, cuts into the core population and jeopardizes the future generation of birds. French hunters retort that wild bird populations are stable.

LEROY: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Last June, amid 2 days of inflamed oratory, such arguments swayed the French National Assembly. Despite the ongoing European action against France, Parliament voted to keep the long hunting season. Even the devoutly European socialists voted against their own environment minister and their coalition partners from the Green Party in favor of the hunters.

LEROY: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Deputy Maurice Leroy cautions from the podium, "Don't forget the peasantry joined the French Revolution once it got the right to hunt." One of the people he was scolding is Noel Mamere, Green representative from another big hunting district in the southwest. Mamere was one of the exactly 20 deputies out of 577 who voted against a long hunting season. He says the representatives wanted to save their seats. Hunting is one of the only single issues that mobilize French voters, especially in his region, where hunters even have their own political party.

MAMERE: The hunter in southwest, inside the region, they are the swing vote, the [bagging?] the vote, as the very leading leading majority. And the swing are the hunters.

CHAYES: Before the June vote in Paris, 150,000 hunters demonstrated in the French capitol, complete with dogs and guns, to make their wishes clear. Sociologist Michel Panson has written a book on traditional hunting and why it stirs such passion. He says the national assemblyman who talked about the French Revolution wasn't kidding. It's possible the French have a collective memory of hunting as part and parcel of the rights they won in 1789. But he says there's something else going on, too, a kind of struggle between 2 different ways of seeing nature.

PINCON: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Pincon says city dwellers tend to have a spectator's contact with nature. They want to look at it. They find it represents a kind of perfection. Country people have a more active, predatory relationship. They take what they need from nature. And at the same time, they're more intimate with it. They know it, the habits of animals, the direction of the wind, the quality of soil. At the heart of the fight over hunting, Pincon says, is the refusal of country people to surrender nature to middle-class city dwellers, today's rulers, who would turn it into a museum.

(Duck calls; a rifle shot)

CHAYES: The sky lightens outside Christian Gricourt's cozy blind, after a dinner of cassoulet and pate and a choice bottle of Bordeaux, and after a long night without a sign of a duck. A few shots can be heard to the south, but only a string of seagulls crosses Gricourt's sights. Who are we bothering out here, he wonders aloud. EU officials feel differently. They say it's no use making European environmental rules if they can't be enforced. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes on the Bay of the Somme River in northern France.



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