On a mild Sunday afternoon in November, thousands of people have gathered for a special event in Nîmes, France. The Levée des Tridents.
Hundreds of riders from the Camargue, the tough but beautiful Rhône Delta south of Nîmes, get ready for a parade.
They ride an ancient breed of stocky white horses that live semi-feral lives in the marshlands.
The long poles they carry are used for rounding up cattle that also live semi-feral lives. The poles have three points on the end and are, unsurprisingly, known as tridents.
The parade is recreating an event that happened 100 years ago.
In 1921, the S.P.D.A. (Society for Protection of Animals) applied to the courts to ban bullfighting in Nîmes and other arenas in southern France.
But there was a fightback. Local people were rallied to defend bullfighting.
A parade was held.
Posters were written in both the local language, Occitan, and French.
Let’s look at one of those posters a little more closely.
Loosely translated, it says that the people of the South have made their contribution to saving France in the First World War, which had ended only three years earlier. Now they needed to protect their language (Langue d’Oc also known as Occitan) and bullfighting.
Language – doesn’t that seem odd?
Isn’t this about bullfighting?
What has language got to do with it?
In the mid-19th century only half of people in France spoke French as a first language.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries an aggressive push was made to ensure the French language was the only language of France, particularly by the Prime Minister Jules Ferry.
Occitan was banned in schools.
The sign in this school reads “SPEAK FRENCH, BE CLEAN“
Speaking local languages was a source of shame, known as the Vergonha. It is still a controversial topic.
Other signs in schools included rules like: “It is forbidden to spit on the ground and speak patois.”
Languages like Occitan were referred to as a patois, or French dialect. Actually, the language has more in common with Catalan.
Now let’s look at a poster by the local branch of the Society for Protection of Animals who wanted to ban bullfighting.
What languages are used? – only French
What is the very first thing said?
“Si vous êtes civilisés” – If you are civilised
What should be a poster about the rights and wrongs of bullfighting becomes a question of whether you are civilised or not. Isn’t this in a similar tone to “Speak French, be clean” or “It is forbidden to spit on the ground and speak patois“?
If you felt looked down on and talked down to, how would you react?
Actually, the pro-bullfighting posters asking locals to protect their ancient ways weren’t being fully honest. Bullfighting may be ancient, but the first recorded bullfight in France took place in 1853, less than 70 years before. Fights had to be conducted with Spanish Brava bulls as native breeds weren’t aggressive enough. It wasn’t for another 20 years that locals started breeding their own fighting bulls – just 50 years of rearing bulls for bullfighting, or half the time between the first Levée des Tridents and the present.
Let’s get back to the parade.
While bands play music with a decidedly Spanish feel…
the riders process through the streets.
People wait their turn to have their photo taken with Spanish bullfighter Juan José Padilla, known as the “Pirate” after losing an eye when gored in the bullring. Despite a miraculous recovery and quick return to the ring, he was injured again and retired soon after that.
People (mostly ladies) wear traditional costumes.
Speeches are made including one by the current Queen of Arles, who is elected to promote the culture of neighbouring Province. Almost everyone is paying attention.
The great-grandson of the founder of the first Levée des Tridents noted:
“c’est surtout un cortège pour la défense des traditions, de notre langue et de tout notre pays de Camargue” – Above all, it’s a procession to defend traditions, language and [the] Camargue
While there may be an older feel to much of the parade, there are young people actively involved.
There is also a new generation of bullfighters.
In Nîmes, they have a local hero to look up to – Nimeño II
He was one of the greatest bullfighters of his generation but was badly injured in the ring and being unable to fight again, committed suicide.
The thirtieth anniversary of his death was just a few days after the parade.
It isn’t just bullfighters who are at risk. Rearing aggressive breeds of bulls is dangerous. A few days after the parade, a cow-heard was badly gored at a farm in the Camargue.
The call for freedom by a local group to central government is something shared with their neighbours in Spanish Catalonia. In 2010, the Catalonian government demonstrated their independence from Madrid by banning bullfighting.
Since the first Levée des Tridents, the people of the Languedoc have shown their determination to hold onto their traditions, their language and their freedom. They have taken back control.
But doesn’t this lead to a paradox?
How can you uphold traditions and have freedom to come to your own conclusions about issues like bullfighting? Did the people on the parade have the freedom to honour their forefathers and hold an independent view from them?
We will never know, unless…
one day, people of the Languedoc stop fighting bulls.