Sat, Apr 07, 2007 - Page 16 News List

French female enters macho matador milieu

Female bullfighters face an uphill struggle to make it big in a traditional pursuit dominated by men with a chauvinistic attitude

AFP , arles, france

French matador Marie Barcelo, 19, practices with her coach Paquito Leal, in Arles bull ring, southern France.

PHOTO: AP

She fought her first cow at 12, killed her first bull at 16 and now this shy, young Frenchwomen is set on facing another adversary — the very macho, closed, ritualized world of bullfighting.

This Easter weekend, 19-year-old Marie Barcelo will walk into a top-class arena to fight a bull, on foot, in her first major holiday corrida.

"In the arena you come alive," said Barcelo, who readily admits to a moment of panic before the bull — which can weigh 480kg to 600kg — enters the ring. But when it does, all fear evaporates.

"It's a pure moment, you shed all pretense and face the truth," she said ahead of what will be a closely watched performance in the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, the southern town that hosts some of France's most spectacular bullfights.

"To become a matador, you must overcome enormous difficulties," bullfighting specialist and chaplain for the amphitheatre in nearby Nimes, Jacques Teissier, said.

"For a woman, entering this still very male chauvinist world is even more difficult."

But Barcelo, whose fine features are framed by shoulder-length chestnut hair, is not fazed.

"This is a man's world but there are women who have proven that we are capable of bullfighting, like Cristina Sanchez," she said.

Sanchez, the most famous female matador in Spain, enjoyed a high profile career in the 1990s before dropping out to retire, mainly over her frustration at some of her male colleagues' refusal to fight alongside a woman.

In France, no woman has yet passed, on foot like Sanchez, the critical "alternative" — a rite of passage that separates amateurs from professionals.

France's best-know female matador, Marie Sara, made it past the test in 1991, but on horseback.

"So far I haven't had any trouble at my level. Afterwards, if I take the 'alternative,' it will be more difficult, but I'm ready to face all that," Barcelo said.

In the classic bullfight, six beasts are successively battled then put to death by the matadors, with the help of mounted lancers or picadors and pages.

The duel as a show of male force and virility is embodied in the Spanish phrase to describe the moment a matador dons his costly "suit of lights": apretarse los machos, which literally means "squeeze the testicles."

But Barcelo's trainer Paquito Leal, himself a former bullfighter, insists "the corrida has begun to evolve," noting that more and more women were entering the sport in Spain.

His protege's passion was sparked at a young age on the farm of her bullfight-loving parents, who make goat's cheese and breed bulls for the Provencal-style bull runs known as the courses camarguaises, in the Herault department west of Arles.

"One day, I was having fun fighting the cows during a branding when Marie told me, 'I want to try.' She was 12 years old," recalled her father Michel.

"She wasn't afraid," he said, showing a picture he still carries in his wallet capturing that moment.

By the end of 2003, Barcelo was enrolled in the bullfighting school in Nimes, where she killed her first bull. It was "impressive," she said.

Corrida opponents claim the practice is barbaric and amounts to animal torture. They doubt matadors' claims that they "love" the bulls they fight. But Barcelo, who is transformed when she enters the ring, eyes blazing and body radiating confidence as she struts through the passes, insists it is true.

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