Saturday morning, 8.30am, driving to my local market town in France profonde, listening to the weekend press review on French radio. The opening remarks astonish me – a bitter attack on the British press for daring to use the shooting of the al-Hilli family as an excuse to attack France as a whole. His voice betraying emotion, the French radio reporter reads a poem by Paul Éluard: “Let those who can, understand./Me, my remorse was for the poor girl who lay/ on the pavement/. . . her torn dress . . . disfigured,/the girl looks like the dead . . .”
This, the press reviewer says bitterly, is “the best answer to the Daily Telegraph” for its article on “the deadly side of France profonde”, claiming that the murder of the family from Surrey is “a bleak reminder of a more sinister aspect of France”. Beneath the bucolic surface lurks a dark, malevolent violence and to back up his argument, the English journalist lists 12 people (not all from Britain) who have been murdered in rural France over the past 60 years.
Line of fire
It was a perfect autumn day in my corner of France profonde, far from the eye of the media storm in the Alps. Yet three times in my short journey I passed groups of men in camouflage jackets, standing on the roadside, rifles under their arms, waiting for a boar or a deer to break cover. Their Winchesters and Remingtons are accurate up to a kilometre but will do damage much further. Woe betide any car that happens to come between a hunter and his prey.
September is a month when many English people come to holiday in France, after the crowds have left, so this is a sight familiar to many: armed men on the side of the road, talking into their cellphones. Since such a scene is unknown in Britain, it is scarcely surprising that passing tourists should see it as violent. Later in the day, the same tourists may pass a mud-spattered 4x4 with a boar’s grotesque carcass proudly strapped across the bonnet. These are memories they will take home. In the village where the hunter has rented a house for his holidays, men hack at the bloody corpse of a deer or parade through the streets jauntily waggling the head, mocking the dead beast. It’s the sort of scene many French people take for granted, part of life in the country. It takes an outsider looking in to be struck by its violence.
At a deeper level, I know that French country people are no more violent than any others but outwardly the true France profonde is different. It has none of the cosiness of, say, the Cotswolds or Dorset – cottages perfectly done up and then re-done up every few years. The house I live in was built for war – it was built to keep out the English marauders 650 years ago and since then has seen action at least once during the wars of religion. The room in which I write this article has known elegance, alchemy, poetry and violent deaths.
Given the range of their rifles, it is surprising that, last year, hunters killed only four non-hunters. Thirty-eight hunters were killed by their colleagues during the five-month season; 89 were wounded in 142 accidents or incidents. The French, however, deplore these statistics. My neighbours are as shocked by violence as I am: 97 per cent of French people do not hunt, yet they accept with a shrug of the shoulders the right of the other 3 per cent to domi-nate the woods and fields, vineyards and garrigue with their high-powered rifles every Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday during the autumn and early winter. Exactly the days when families want to walk through the woods, exercising the dog, picking mushrooms and wild fruit.
“It’s something we’re born with,” a hunting neighbour told me. “An instinct, an inalienable right.” Hunters have a powerful lobby and many rights. Anyone who has bought a property with a few acres in France knows that hunters may tramp across their land with guns, killing whatever game they see. “A right we won during the Revolution,” I have often been told. That’s rubbish. “Hunting for all” was indeed a pre-Revolution promise but when it came before the National Assembly six weeks after the fall of the Bastille, Robespierre’s bill was thrown out. An aristocrat, Count de Mirabeau, carried the vote and kept hunting firmly on the estates of the landowners. The “ancient” right of hunters to carry their guns on to other people’s land and thus in public places was granted only in 1964.
More than half the radio press review was given over to indignant editorials in French national and regional newspapers. Much of their anger was over the implication that this residual violence is specific to France, that if the al-Hillis’ murder had happened just over the border in Switzerland, the British press reaction would have been very different. At the same time, their anger struck me as disingenuous. During the build-up to the Olympics, the French press had been warning readers not to be taken in by the joy in the streets during the jubilee celebrations and the apparent euphoria at the opening of the Olympic Games. The British Queen, they said, rules over a country of deep inequalities, social unrest and, yes, violence – rerunning images of shops and cars being gratuitously smashed, looted and burned just a year before.
So both Britain and France need to see the other as a place of greater violence, both getting upset if accused of what they accuse the other. This petty bickering does not happen between Britain and any other country. There is some special chemistry between us that gets a senior French radio presenter reaching for his poetry collection when deliberately provoked by the English press. No amount of analysing will explain it and probably, since it started long before this house was built to withstand English arrows, no amount of years will diminish it.
It is, and remains, one of the enigmas that tickles continually – until sometimes it hurts.
Tim King is a writer living in France