Say what you like about Americans and their far-west approach to gun control: while in the U.S. I have never actually seen anybody sporting a gun in public. In France, on the other hand, I regularly meet men with guns.
Each year in early September, you’ll see them strolling casually through the fields, by the edge of the woods or even along the road, not far from the neighbouring houses. Rifle slung over shoulder, sporting an orange day-glo vest or traditional camouflage gear. Most times they’re accompanied by a trusty hound or two, which somehow restores my confidence. Surely if they’re hunting with a dog, they’ll be careful where they aim?
As a woman alone on a country road, to encounter a man with a firearm is to know what it is to feel fear. Assuming he is not a rapist or a serial killer disguised as a hunter, just the idea of being so close to someone with the visible means to kill you is terrifying. “Bonjour,” I’ll say, pretending to act normal while preparing to do the 100-yard dash.
Then there is the risk of ‘la balle perdue’ – the stray bullet. Every year in the news you will hear of an accidental death, usually among a hunting party that has lost one of its own. Such accidents are generally put down to the inexperience of a neophyte hunter, or to alcohol. They do not seem to alarm anyone but me.
Serious outdoorsmen will defend the hunter as a nature lover, one who is respectful of the laws and understands the importance of not combining alcohol with la chasse. Still, most every village in France has a watering hole called ‘Bar aux Chasseurs’. The men (and indeed, the clientele in such places is almost uniquely masculine) are in there on Sunday mornings with their verre de blanc while most of us are still having our first coffee.
La chasse is dear to the hearts of the French. It’s part of a longstanding tradition of being close to the land, hunting and eating le gibier (game) when the season opens from September to January.
Far be it from me to argue with that, though a-hunting I will not go. I just run a little faster in hunting season. Along with the pheasants and hares and other small and large game. Unlike them, I can stick to the main roads to stay out of harm’s way.
Oddly, another place you often see men with guns is on trains, especially in Switzerland*. Soldiers in full army regalia will pass through the cars looking for a seat, service rifle in plain sight. Sometimes they’re very young and holding a large can of beer. This also makes me want to scream and jump off. Usually I discreetly change cars.
*It’s ironic that the peace-loving Swiss have a proportionately bigger army for their population than any other country and recently voted to maintain conscription – obligatory military service for adult men. Read more about the vote here.