Bullfighting ban and the horns of a dilemma for Spain

IN the era of dictator General Francisco Franco, the sales gambit peddled to the rest of the world to attract foreign tourism to Spain was that of a country marked out by flamenco and bullfighting.

Since Franco's death in 1975 and the restoration of democracy under a constitutional monarchy, the liberal tendency in Spain has sought to distance itself from the cliched symbols of Francoism. In Catalonia – the large autonomous region in the north-east of the country centred on Barcelona – there is a particularly strong pull, both politically and culturally, away from much of what Franco stood for.

Yesterday Catalonia outlawed bullfighting, becoming Spain's first mainland region to do so, after a heated debate that pitted animal rights against the idea of preserving traditional culture. Cheers broke out in the 135-seat regional legislature after the free vote was passed by 68 to 55 with nine abstentions. Most members voted along party lines, and the outcome by no means gives a resounding thumbs-up to the ban, to be enforced in 2012.

Bullfighting fans and some political groups have said that the argument became a proxy for long-held tensions over this wealthy and powerful region's (some Catalans call it a "nation") desire to distance itself from the rest of Spain; conservatives, in particular the centre-right, pro-bullfighting Popular Party, which fervently supports the idea of Spain as a unified country ruled by Madrid and not a series of autonomous regions, view the ban as "anti-Spanish". The PP is considering a legal application to overturn it.

Tony Moore, the chairman of Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, said the decision was the "beginning of the end" for bullfighting. Animal welfare groups gathered outside the Catalan parliament before the vote, carrying posters of bleeding animals; while defenders of bullfighting waved Catalan flags and banners proclaiming "libertad y toros" (freedom and bulls).

Even without a close understanding of Spanish politics, it's still easy to see how the issue has become entangled with one region's political and cultural positioning of itself as more progressive, more cosmopolitan and generally more European than its neighbours within Spain.

Catalans proudly boast that the first railway line in Spain ran from Barcelona up the coast to Mataro and that Nietzsche was translated into Catalan before Spanish... Yes, Catalonia is seen by many as taking a confident (some would say irritating) view of its place in the Iberian Penninsula and in the world.

"Catalan society is extremely diverse," says Antonio Martnez-Arboleda, senior teaching fellow in Spanish at Leeds University.

"There is an important animal welfare movement in Spain against bullfighting, but looking at the recent voting patterns and the strength of different political parties in Catalonia, I would say that perhaps for a third of the Catalan population this vote was also a way of distancing themselves from Spanish cultural stereotypes."

Although the ban will give extra impetus to animal rights activists,

for lovers of the corrida the end is by no means nigh. Madrid and Andalucia have a much busier bullfighting scene, only one of Barcelona's three bullrings is still in operation (one of the others is now a shopping mall), with around 15 events a year. "Some areas of Spain – and rural areas in particular – will not follow in Catalonia's footsteps (with a ban)," says Louise Johnson, director of Catalan Studies at Sheffield University. "Even if legislation is passed in other autonomous communities, bullfighting is too rooted in history and tradition to disappear."

Dr Johnson does not believe that yesterday's ban means the issue was chosen as a vehicle for "separatist" Catalans to make a political point. "Going right back to the beginning of the 20th century, there never was the same kind of fervour for it as in many other places."

It could well be, also, that the tradition of bullfighting is for many irrevocably associated with Franco and the deaths of tens of thousands of Catalan Republicans during the Civil War. Not all Catalans were Republicans, but for some families who have no great interest in the corrida, these connotations are enough to reject the whole bloody business.

"Overall, I believe this was first and foremost an animal rights debate which some political groups then tried to say was really about Catalan separatism," says Dr Johnson. "Catalans generally believe in changing things from within."