Rue Amelot

When A California Boy Discovers Bear Bashing In Rural France

Anti-bear demonstration in Pau
Anti-bear demonstration in Pau
Benjamin Witte

PAU — Not far from this southwestern French city, up in the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains that tower in the distance, there are bears. Still, even the most intrepid human adventurer would be hard pressed to ever spot one.

Researchers believe there are only about 40 of the omnivores in the entire, 490-kilometer long Pyrénées range, along the French-Spanish border. And in the portion that includes Pau — the once sovereign state of Béarn in what is now France's Pyrénées-Atlantiques department — there are just two, both of them males.

Little wonder the Pyrénéan brown bears (Ursus arctos) all have individual names — cute and fuzzy ones like Pepito, Bulle and Plume. There was even a Balou, "godson" of French actors Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant, but he died in 2014. Word has it that he was struck by lightning, though like pieces of this tale, the precise facts have never been confirmed.

What we do know is, according to scientists, is that at least 80 of the furry creatures would be needed to make it a "viable" population to avoid eventual extinction. For obvious reasons, the situation is even more precarious for the two lonely Béarn bears, a father and son, apparently, and both decedents of Cannelle, France's last indigenous female bear, killed illegally by a hunter in 2004. The other females present in the Pyrénées were either introduced or descend from bears introduced from Slovenia.

Wild and domestic animals don't mix.

For the sake of bears' reproductive necessities, French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot announced in late March that the state wants to fetch two more Slovenian bears — females — and release them in the Béarn this coming autumn. "I don't want to be the minister who stood by while this line of bears died out," Hulot, a former wildlife presenter on television, told the daily Le Parisien.

I, for one, am hoping the match-making experiment works, that Néré and Cannellito — the two surviving Béarn boys — meet their future lady loves and, you know, do it like they do on the Discovery channel. May they live long and prosper, and populate their neck of the woods with bouncing baby bears!

My warm and fuzzy wishes, as it turns out, are not shared by all. In the area's valleys, many sheep and cattle farmers strongly oppose the presence of bears. Some hunters, beekeepers and even hikers agree with them, and want the government to send the bears back from whence they came — to Slovenia's Kočevje region. And as far as new introductions are concerned, pas question! (no way), the anti-ours (anti-bear) crowd insists.

Béarn flag with Pyrénées mountain range in background — Photo: Benjamin Witte

"Wild animals and domestic animals don't mix. It doesn't work. We don't want that," Patrice Marie, a middle-aged shepherd from the Vercors area, in the foothills of the Alps, told me in the parking lot of the Pau train station. "We defend our right to live off the work we do, and not be attacked, not be mistreated. It's like if someone goes to work every day and people keep lighting his car on fire. That's wrong. The people who do that are criminals. For us, the wild animals are the criminals."

Never mind that where Marie lives, in the southeastern Drôme department, there are no bears. But there are wolves. And it's "the same thing," the sparkly-eyed shepherd, with his friendly demeanor and rustic black beret, insisted. "For us it's hell," he said. "We're forced to watch our animals 24/7. We don't sleep any more. It's a life of stress. We have to have guard dogs. We need to be armed. It's not a pleasant life. We're at war when it comes to these wild animals."

All fired up

Marie was one of an estimated 1,200 people — along with a couple of horses and at least 100 sheep, goats and cows — who made their way this past week to Pau, the administrative capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, to make their voices heard and tell Mr. Hulot to scrap his bear-introduction plan once and for all.

Carrying signs, walking sticks and cowbells, the demonstrators snaked their way through the hilltop city, ably shepherding their livestock from the train station, down below, to the entrance of the city center's departmental administrative offices. There they unrolled a huge bail of hay, which the animals munched on while organizers gave a series of fiery speeches lambasting Hulot and his environmentally minded initiative. As a final touch, someone lit the half-eaten hay on fire.

The overall atmosphere was convivial, a boisterous but friendly celebration of paysan pride. But toward the end, as the rhetoric heated to a fevered pitch — one speaker likened the government's reintroduction program to Jurassic Park — it started to seem just a wee-bit over the top. All this hoo-ha over a plan to plant just two bears in an area covering thousands of square kilometers.

But of course this is my perspective visiting from Montpellier, the midsized French city where I sleep well knowing that neither myself nor my livelihood will have any unpleasant encounters with the wild animals. I also happen to hail from a country, the United States, with tens of thousands of bears, and grew up in a state, California, that features a grizzly bear (though they no longer exist there) on its flag. The Béarn flag, I realized, has a pair of cows on it.

Worlds apart

No one I spoke to in Pau has had any ill-fated run-ins with bears either, which isn't surprising. There are only 40 of them after all. Javier Bernal, a young cattle farmer, came all the way from the Broto valley, across the mountains in Spain, to show "solidarity" with his "French comrades." He hasn't dealt with any bear attacks "yet," he told me. "Because in our area there aren't any." One never knows, though. Perhaps the Béarn bears will mate, as Nicolas Hulot is hoping, and mount an eventual cross-border invasion.

Protest in Pau — Photo: Benjamin Witte

Still, there have been attacks elsewhere in the Pyrénées. Bears like to eat berries, honey and insects, but they'll also go after a sheep if they're hungry enough. And sheep scare easily, with potentially fatal consequences given the tricky mountain topography. Last summer, a bear attack along the border caused more than 200 panicked sheep to plunge off a cliff. Farmers aren't allowed to retaliate. Hunting bears is illegal in France. But the French state does offer compensation for lost animals.

We're proud people, alive and well.

Yelling into the microphone at an ear-spitting volume, cow bells clanging in the background, Patrice Marie took the stage toward the end of the Pau demonstration to spell out his vision of a grand, cross-country march on Paris — perhaps with participants from Spain, Italy, Germany and beyond. "We'll tell the whole country who we are, that we're proud people, alive and well, descendants of defenders of the mountain territories."

Even if Marie's European-wide march does get off the ground, don't expect there to be the "millions' he envisions. To me, it's all just wishful thinking. But as I turned away from the stage, I caught the eye of another middle aged, beret-wearing man. Visibly moved by Marie's speech, his eyes moist with tears, the man gave me a slightly embarrassed half-smile. I immediately responded in kind, as if to say, "I understand." Except I don't. Time, perhaps, for a city slicker like me to head home.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!