I was sitting in my garden in Calvados the other day contemplating this year’s glorious co-existence between autumn leaves and summer flowers. Bang!! A shower of lead pellets passed a few metres behind my head shredding the leaves of the apple trees.
My 80-something neighbour was accidentally stalking me again. According to the law, he is forbidden to fire his gun within 150 metres of a house or a road. He breaks the law most Sundays between September and February.
I have complained politely in the past. Other neighbours have complained. He shrugs and insists that he is very careful and has not yet killed anyone. He never seems to hit a bird or animal either so that is not especially reassuring.
No one in the hamlet cares to make an official complaint to the gendarmerie. He is the first assistant mayor of the commune, a man of some local power.
Elsewhere in France, autumn has also started with a bang – and a series of predictable tragedies. Five people have been killed since the hunting season commenced last month. The victims include a 34-year-old British chef, Marc Sutton, shot by a young, inexperienced hunter while riding his mountain bike on an official trail in Haute Savoie.
Last weekend, a hunter was killed in the Meuse; another off-road cyclist was wounded in Ariège; and two surfers complained that they were fired upon by pheasant shooters on the Finistère coast in Brittany.
Hunting accidents have been declining in France in recent years. “Only” 13 people lost their lives in the six months of the 2017-18 hunting season, compared to 18 the previous year and an average of 20 since the start of the century. Most victims are other hunters.
France remains nonetheless the most dangerous place in western Europe to go for a country walk or cycle ride in the autumn and winter. This year’s early season carnage is probably explained by the Indian Summer, which has brought more people into the hills and woods.
What can be done? Several things.
What will be done? Not much, if the experience of my 22 years in France is anything to go by.
Over 80 per cent of French people in one recent poll said that they supported a ban on hunting on Sundays. A petition to President Emmanuel Macron calling for a Sunday ban launched by the wildlife protection group ASPAS (L’Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages) has attracted over 185,000 signatures.
There is no reason to expect action soon. The hunting lobby, though representing only two per cent of the population, is very powerful in France. One Macron-supporting deputy, Alain Péréa, provoked fury a week ago when he suggested that the way to protect cyclists from being shot dead on forest trails was to ban VTT (off-road) cycling in the hunting season.
The Macron administration, though supposedly “metropolitan” and out of touch with La France Profonde, is surprisingly pro-chasse. In August the government halved the annual fee for a national hunting licence to €200, without placing any new restrictions on les chasseurs. This was one of the reasons why France’s favourite Green Guru, Nicolas Hulot, resigned as environment minister last month.
Macron may believe that hunting is the way to the rural heart. He is wrong. In my experience in the Calvados hills 20 miles south of Caen, genuine country people rarely hunt. My gun-happy neighbour is the exception, rather than the rule.
A recent national survey confirmed my suspicions. One third of the country’s 1.2 million hunters are executives or members of the professions. Less than one in ten are farmers or farm labourers.
The hunters who pour into my commune at the weekends come from the suburbs of large towns. They are like an invading militia, dressed up in camouflage jackets and trousers, covered by the legally-required day-glo vests (an absurd combination but probably responsible for the fall in the hunting death rate).
I am not against hunting but I have come to fear and dislike these people. They leer aggressively at walkers as if to say: “rather you, than me. We’ve got guns. We can do as we like.”
I’m not alone. My 70-something neighbour Madeleine says: “I hate them, I hate them. I never feel safe when they are around.”
So what COULD be done? A ban on hunting on Sundays is long overdue. France is the only country in western Europe in which shooting is allowed seven days a week.
The existing rules should be enforced more rigorously, including the rules on not firing or carrying loaded guns near houses or roads.
There should be tougher rules on safety training for hunters – not just the new recruits but the over-50s who make up the bulk of a slowly declining pass-time.
There should also be rules against drinking while hunting and random breathalyser checks by the gendarmerie.
Will any of this happen soon? I doubt it.
John Lichfield is a former France correspondent and foreign editor for the Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield