Kid Bullfighter Sparks Debate In France

Ten year old Franco-Mexican bullfighter Michelito Lagravere fights a young bull in Hagetmau arena, southwestern France, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
AP Photo/Bob Edme
He's a tiny torero, a bullfighter with a baby face. But 10-year-old Michelito has become the symbol of a debate much bigger than himself.

French anti-bullfighting campaigners say the child is risking his life in the ring, and local authorities in southern France canceled two recent shows where he was set to appear. Other performances have gone ahead, with Michelito - who has big brown eyes and a floppy bowl cut - showered with flowers by fans.

It's all part of a bigger battle: French animal rights groups vs. bullfighting, which is a tradition in southern France as in neighboring Spain, and which has a small but passionate French following.

For Michelito Lagravere, the passion started young, about as soon as he could walk. Born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and a French bullfighting father, he started playing at being a torero - using a dishtowel as a cape - when he was just a tot, his father said.

He was 4 years old the first time he faced off against a month-old calf. Now 10, he has fought about 60 animals to the death, his father said. Videos on the Internet show him in the ring with injured, staggering calves - not to mention Michelito being trampled.

"Am I afraid?" asked his father, Michel Lagravere. "I'm afraid like all fathers are afraid for their children. ... It's like all other sports. It's more dangerous than playing chess, if that's considered a sport. But I don't think it's more dangerous than horseback riding and riding competitions."

In Mexico, where Michelito lives, loose laws governing child bullfighters have attracted young matadors from other countries - including one Spanish bullfighter, Jairo Miguel, who was nearly gored to death last year at age 14 when a bull punctured his lung.

Michelito's career apparently caused little stir until he came to southern France this summer for a tour, invited to take part in nonprofessional demonstrations by local bullfighting schools.

In France, children aren't allowed to become professional bullfighters until age 16, said Andre Viard, president of the National Observatory of Bullfighting Cultures.

While there are no French laws that would prevent a child from fighting an animal to the death or from facing off a grown bull, organizers would not let it happen, he said.

Beatrice Brethes, who runs a bullfighting school where Michelito and other children recently performed, said the children were paired with calves ranging from 9 months old to a year old, and weighing no more than 150 pounds (70 kilograms). She said none of the children or animals was harmed, and no French laws were broken.

Claire Starozinski of the Alliance Anticorrida, meanwhile, has filed legal complaints in towns where Michelito was scheduled to perform this summer. She argued that Michelito's shows broke French labor code, which bars children under 16 from "jobs that endanger their lives, health or morality."

"This boy is a professional in his country," she said. "He killed his first animal at 6. He already has scars ... You don't teach a child to kill at age 6. The role of a parent is to protect their child. These parents are not protecting their child; they are making him take risks."

Under pressure, the town of Fontvieille canceled Friday's show out of fear for the boy's safety. Organizers tried to move it to nearby Arles, but local security officials ruled that the arena was not up to standard.

The assistant mayor of Arles who handles bullfighting, Jean-Marie Egidio, said the city was puzzled by that ruling, which was later overturned. Michelito was performing Thursday in Arles, his last show in France before he boards a plane to pursue his ambitions back at home in Mexico.

As his father says: "I think he has a really great career ahead of him."