Vic-Fezensac: In this village of 3600 inhabitants in southwest France, 35,000 partiers and bullfighting aficionados swarmed in for the annual holiday of Pentecost. To the bullfight fans, it was a fun-filled traditional festival—part of the local culture, but for the160 animal protection advocates who traveled there to protest, it was a scene of unforgettable violence.
The village, at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains, is far from the chic cafés and museums of Paris and unfamiliar to American tourists. Vic is built around a massive bullfighting arena that seats 7000. Throughout the three-day festival, it’s non-stop bullfights and the festivities spill out of the arena into the village, crowded with live bands, mobile food carts and venders selling cheap bullfight- themed trinkets. The Féria, as the festival is known, turns the otherwise unremarkable village into a scene that resembles a Game of Thrones episode—hordes of rowdy, crude, “feasters” carousing in streets flowing with alcohol, vomit, urine and the blood of bulls.
In past years, the annual Féria had become so unruly that Vic’s residents won a narrow referendum to suspend the festival for two years (2012 and 2013). With a new mayor and 6 million Euros in profits to be made, those who benefit from the Féria won this year and now the hordes are back.
Bullfighting is a brutal blood sport where bulls are tortured for several days in preparation for the ring and then stabbed to death in front of a jeering crowd. Technically, the blood sport is illegal in France, punishable for up to two years in prison but bullfighting has been granted a special judicial status-- a cultural exemption in southern regions with a tradition of bullfighting. In those specified exempted areas, the torture and killing of bulls and calves for entertainment is legal. Bullfighting is illegal in 90% of French territory.
A recent poll taken by a local paper showed that only 24% of nearby residents were in favor of bullfighting and 74% were opposed.
The protest, organized by CRAC Europe, the leading anti-bullfighting organization in France, was the first ever in Vic—it was considered far too dangerous. In the days leading up to the scheduled protest, local authorities and bullfight promoters had attempted, using legal tactics, to annul the protest or at least dictate where the protest could take place. Afraid that protesters might jump into the ring and attempt to halt the massacre (as they have done at other protests), the bullfight organizers didn’t want the protesters anywhere near the arena. CRAC’s attorneys outmaneuvered them and were able to overrule an unconstitutional injunction, including obtaining the right to use amplified sound. The protest was legally declared and authorized.
When the protesters arrived in Vic, they were surrounded by over 100 military police dressed in riot gear who were not aware of the latest legal wrangling that CRAC had won. Amid smoke bombs and deafening sirens, tense negotiations between CRAC leader Jean-Pierre Garrigues and the gendarmes took place. Scores of aficionados standing comfortably behind the police line taunted the protesters.
“We knew we were taking a big risk protesting in Vic,” said Carole Saldain, a CRAC representative. “The aficionados are brutes and thugs—drunk and very violent…they are there all pumped up to watch a barbaric spectacle and we knew we would be in danger. We were there for a peaceful protest but we were bracing for the worst.”
“By 8 a.m., the people, thousands of them, were completely drunk. They were making obscene gestures and there was vomit and urine everywhere. When we got to the center of town, the police stopped us from moving forward. They wouldn’t let the truck by,” said Roger Lahana, vice president of CRAC.
“They were not aware that the decision by the mayor had been overturned just hours earlier. The police charged the protesters in the most brutal way—there were wounded protesters on the ground. We had to pull back. Jean Pierre Garrigues asked the police the stop punching protesters. They brutally pushed him against a wall. He hit his head. Several police threw him to the ground. They forced us backward with our amplified sound truck. From behind, our driver saw aficionados trying to get into the truck. During the melee, instead of arresting the aficionados, one of whom had gratuitously slapped a female protester in the face, military police arrested the president of CRAC, Jean-Pierre Garrigues.”
Around 20 animal protection activists had bought tickets in advance to get into the bullfight. They knew they were too few to jump into the ring as activists had done in the past, being viciously beaten by fans. As it was, they were putting their lives at risk if they were discovered. So blending in with the jeering fans, they got close and filmed the torture and stabbing of several bulls.
After the bullfight, a young bull named Amante, a calf, really, was dragged out of the ring by horses onto the street, bleeding but still alive. According to horrified witnesses I spoke to, Amante was fully conscious and in pain. He was dragged over to a fork lift, leaving trails of blood on the ground as Féria revelers laughed and stepped out of the way.
Amante was hauled away like garbage while still alive.
In all, eight protesters were arrested along with Mr. Garrigues and ten protesters were wounded by police, nursing broken bones, sprains and serious lumps and bruises. Ms. Saldain suffered a large hematoma on her breast. “He punched me hard in the breast,” she said of a police officer, “right where I had been operated on for a tumor."
“We are still waiting for all the medical reports to come in, but this is nothing compared to the violence inflicted on the animals. The worst is that the aficionados bring children to watch this barbaric act. They’ve lost all sense of dignity.”
“For us, it was a victory,” said Ms. Saldain. “Even the wind was with us! Our smoke bombs went into the arena and delayed some of the torture. They couldn’t see what they were doing with all the smoke. Some villagers would prefer the Pentecost without the killing.”
24 bulls were tortured and stabbed to death in the Vic arena over the course of the Féria de Vic-Fezansac this year.