Not only does the French chasseur seriously deplete the ranks of our furry and feathery friends, and is not averse to using the odd road sign, stray cat or dog as target practice, but he also represents a considerable danger for some 15 million of his outdoor-loving compatriotes: walkers, ramblers, joggers, mushroom and blackberry-seekers, horse-riders, mountain-bikers, photographers, and general wild-life observers. In his favour, however, he does seem to be conscious of this: my Englishman has just reminded me of one occasion when, while strolling through a public forest one Sunday afternoon, I myself was the object of a peremptory warning (to the indignation even of the Frenchman in me), from a group of chasseurs that: ‘Vous vous promenez ici à vos risques et périls!’ – ‘Here, you’re walking at your own risk!’ For the French chasseur is enough of a bad shot to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Though 150 of these accidents stay in the family, roughly 20 involve non-shooters – even the most innocent of these.
Evidence of this was provided by a short article which appeared recently in my local weekly newspaper evoking a scenario worthy of the gun-toting Wild West. Last Saturday afternoon, it related, a young boy was playing in a junior football match with his local team when the ball happened to be kicked over onto the nearby road. As he was retrieving it, he was struck in the leg by some sort of projectile. He was immediately rushed to hospital where, after examination, a bullet was extracted from his knee. The article went on to reassure us that the boy’s life was not, however, in danger, and the following morning the gendarmes in charge of the investigation reported that a hunter had presented himself at the gendarmerie, along with rifle and cartridges. It was probably, they explained, a stray bullet which had ricocheted on a rock. It goes without saying that no French government has the political courage to ruffle the feathers of this powerful lobby counting more than 1.4 million voters who dictate their law of the gun.
A not negligible factor in the English sense of fair play involves a feeling of sympathy for the underdog. Not only is this type of adversary generally expected to be the loser because of his inferior sporting skills, but the circumstances surrounding the impending contest may also be to his disadvantage: the fact that he is operating away from home can have a significant part to play. In these conditions, giving the away-player(s) a sporting chance means going some way towards redressing this acknowledged handicap.
In England, this is usually echoed by a round of warm applause when the visiting team runs onto the pitch, by an acceptance of the referee’s decisions when these go against the home side and, above all, by the cathedral-like silence observed when penalties are being taken by the visitors. In contrast, for the Gallics, performing before your own supporters is an advantage which must be pushed firmly home. As a result, any self-respecting French supporter will use all means at his disposal to make the time spent on the playing field as much of an ordeal for away-team players and supporters (together with linesmen and the referee) as that suffered by General Gordon and his besieged forces on it becoming clear they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Dervish hordes, and that in the impending assault not the slightest quarter would be shown.
And this same notion of being on home or away ground has an equally important part to play in the sporting ethics of hunting and shooting, too. In this respect, my English half remembers a conversation I had during a dinner party in England a few years ago. As venison was on the menu, talk turned to hunting and shooting. On learning there was a French side to me, the elderly, distinguished-looking English gentleman sitting opposite immediately related an experience he’d had in the nineteen fifties while on holiday in the South of France. Hearing there was a ‘pigeon shooting competition’ in a neighbouring village, and being a clay-pigeon shooter himself, he decided to go along to watch. The same horror-struck indignation which had certainly seized him at the time was repeated when he informed us that the ‘clay’ pigeons released were, in fact, made of bone, flesh and feathers!
‘What a shameful transgression of sporting fair-play!’ he went on to add. ‘It was like shooting a sitting duck!’
‘I fail to see the difference, monsieur, between shooting live pigeons and live grouse!’ my Frenchman countered.
Though the gentleman confessed to being a keen grouse-shooter himself, he adamantly denied infringing any sporting ethics. For him, what distinguished shooting grouse from live pigeons boiled down to a question of playing at home or away. Since grouse shooting takes place on their natural moorland habitat, it was the birds which had the advantage of playing on home ground. This was enough to make them fair game. With live pigeon shooting it was not the case. Releasing them from the away territory of man-made cages made them the defenceless victims of a shameful massacre: for what can be more disgracefully unsporting than to remove this last small chance an adversary has of escaping?
Moreover, this no doubt aristocratically-rooted English attachment to sporting ethics is still in evidence today: for an Englishman can come home at the end of a day’s shooting empty-handed but, as long as he has respected sporting ethics, rapturously happy and satisfied with time spent. The French chasseur, on the other hand, is of le peuple. He is, above all, a predator. Far be it for my Englishman to imply by this that the chasseur is not insensitive to the profound communion with nature which his sport provides, nor to the warm camaraderie the pursuit of a commonly-shared passion procures; nor, at the limit, is he ignorant of the more rudimentary rules of sporting fair-play. But this notion of playing at home or away leaves him cold. For the French chasseur takes a far more pragmatic view: his primary aim is to avoid the humiliating ridicule involved in not obtaining tangible results, and any shame he might feel would be caused less by shooting a sitting duck than coming home with an empty game bag.
And it is certainly this point which goes somewhere towards explaining why in France at the beginning of each shooting season thousands of human-friendly partridges and pheasants are released from the farms where they were reared, and which they certainly considered as home, to be pitilessly massacred in less than half the time it takes to reload. In a good season’s shooting some 30 million of our feathery and furry friends (15 million of which are farm-raised ‘sitting-ducks’ – pheasants, partridges, mallards, rabbits, etc., released as gun fodder) meet a premature and gory end.