Crouched under the thick morning fog shrouding a forest in central France, Michel scrutinises the frozen ground and smiles, his eyes twinkling at the sight of fresh boar and deer tracks.
“I just love it – I almost prefer it to the actual killing, to know that I didn’t make a mistake and the animals are indeed there,” whispers Michel, who has hunted in this corner of the Morvan region for decades.
He is one of four million card-carrying hunters in France, the largest contingent of any country in Europe – and a vital electorate for the candidates in the French presidential vote in April.
France’s love of the land runs deep, even though the number of farms has dwindled in recent years and large parts of the countryside have emptied out, often resulting in a dearth of essential services such as healthcare.
Yet the dream of a country vacation home has long motivated middle classes across the political spectrum, fuelled in part by pride in the country’s rural heritage – of which hunters are held up as the guardians.
“Obviously we have influence, and we will sell our vision of the world for 2022,” Willy Schraen, head of the FNC national hunters’ federation, told journalists recently.
Emmanuel Macron, a centrist former investment banker, moved quickly to curry their favour after his 2017 election, slashing the annual hunting licence fee to €200 ($225) from €400.
And in December that year, he celebrated his 40th birthday at the grandiose Chateau de Chambord, for centuries the royal hunting grounds of French kings in the Loire Valley.
Surrounded by torches and the blowing of horns, he was the first sitting president in decades to attend the venerable ritual of presenting the day’s take – though Macron himself did not take part in the hunt.
Other mainstream candidates have also played up their support for hunters, with even Communist candidate Fabien Roussel defending them recently against “condescending intellectuals”.
Valerie Pecresse, widely seen as the biggest threat to Macron’s re-election hopes, has hailed them as “lovers of nature” who are “very responsible and respectful”.
Yet opposition to hunting for sport has risen on both wildlife preservation and animal cruelty grounds, and tensions between the two sides routinely flare as elections near.
A series of fatal accidents this season – seven so far – has also revived claims that hunters put other forest users at risk.
Such arguments exasperate Thierry, a former teacher in Paris who is moving to the Morvan, and was among the 10 orange-vested hunters being led by Michel.
“They give an absolutely false image of hunters as carnivores who only want to kill, kill, kill, but from what I see it’s about respect and spending the day in nature with friends,” he said.
Critics are pushing to prohibit hunting on weekends – France is among the few EU countries to allow hunting every day during the season – and sharply curtail the number of species allowed, currently around 90.
Hunting and power
A petition to halt hunting on Sundays and Wednesdays, a weekday when many schools are closed, has garnered 120,000 signatures.
“But I’m like everyone else, I work during the week – you go hunting on the weekend,” said Christian, another in Michel’s group.
For Sergio dalla Bernardina, an Italian anthropologist who has studied hunting debates across Europe, the debate will have outsize sway in the French presidential fight.
“The relationship between hunting and power is quite strong in the French imagination,” he said.
“Behind the stakes over hunting itself, there are questions of rural identity, the soil, authenticity, and the face off between urbanites and ‘neo-rurals’ who are often seen as modern-day colonisers,” he said.