PARIS - France's top constitutional body will decide Friday on a request by animal-rights activists to ban bullfighting, defended in the south as an important tradition and key source of tourist revenue.
Already forbidden in the rest of France, bullfighting is allowed in parts of the south - including in such cities as Nimes, Arles and Bayonne - as a protected local tradition.
But anti-bullfighting group CRAC and animal-rights organisation DDA have asked France's Constitutional Council to close the loophole by imposing the ban country-wide.
"It is absurd that the law allows animals to be tortured on 10 per cent of France's territory," said CRAC vice-president Jean-Pierre Garrigues said.
"This is a Spanish tradition, not a French one, and even if it were French nothing justifies cruelty to animals for pleasure," he said.
"What's next, will some village claim men should be allowed to beat their wives because it's a tradition there?"
France holds dozens of bullfights every year, with more than 1,000 animals killed, and matches can attract tens of thousands of spectators.
Though popular in the south, the sport is largely ignored in the rest of the country and polls show about two-thirds of French would like to see it banned entirely.
The sport has many passionate defenders however, including Interior Minister Manuel Valls who infuriated bullfighting opponents earlier this month by insisting it is a tradition that should be saved.
"It's something I love, it's part of my family's culture," said the minister who was born in Spain and moved with his family to France when he was a child.
"It's a culture that we have to preserve," he said, adding that with France in the middle of economic crisis, it was important to maintain traditions.
"We need these roots, we should not tear them out," he said.
Defenders have also pointed to the economic benefits of a sport that draws large numbers of tourists to southern France, especially to hugely popular ferias in cities like Nimes and Arles.
The Arles Easter Feria, for example, attracts 500,000 visitors over six days, each spending about 100 euros ($130) a day, said Christian Mourisard, the head of the city's tourist office.
"Bullfighting gives a boost to the city and creates hundreds of jobs," he said.
Banning the sport would have "dramatic" consequences for southern economies, said Genevieve Darrieusecq, the mayor of Mont-de-Marsan and head of the UVTF association of French towns that host bullfights.
"It would damage the attractiveness of our festivals and have economic effects on hotels, restaurants," she said.
Arles-born matador Juan Bautista, who takes part in up to 50 bullfights a year in France, Spain and Latin America, said he did not "dare to think" of the sport being banned.
Bautista said he hoped a decision by the constitutional council to maintain the right to hold bullfights would put an end to efforts to fully ban the sport. "It will be respected once and for all. The case will be closed."
But activists have said they will pursue a ban even if the council rejects their request.
Garrigues said plans are underway to get a bill presented in France's new parliament - elected in May - to impose a nationwide ban and to eventually bring a challenge before the European Court of Human Rights.
"This must be stopped, tradition cannot justify everything. If it's a bad tradition it must be allowed to die," he said.