France's highest constitutional body on Friday rejected a plea by animal-rights activists to ban bullfighting nationwide, saving a southern French tradition denounced by critics as a cruel bloodsport.
The Constitutional Council said it was not against the spirit of the constitution to allow the practice in some regions despite it being banned in most of the country.
France holds dozens of bullfights every year, with more than 1,000 animals killed annually in bouts that supporters defend as a local tradition and an important generator of tourism.
The council said the provision allowing bullfighting in the south was "precise, objective and rational", adding that "these traditional practices thus authorised do not infringe constitutional rights."
The anti-bullfighting group CRAC and animal-rights organisation DDA had asked the council to impose a nationwide ban by closing the loophole allowing the tradition to continue in southern areas.
Polls have generally indicated that about two-thirds of the French electorate would like bullfighting to be banned entirely, although the latest one published on Thursday found 48 percent in favour of a ban, 42 percent for the status quo and 10 percent with no opinion.
The sport has many passionate defenders, including Interior Minister Manuel Valls who enraged 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."
But Friday's ruling drew strong condemnation from critics of the sport.
"This decision proves sadly enough that we are not a democracy but a bullfighting dictatorship," said Jean-Pierre Garrigues, the vice-president of CRAC.
"The Council does not have the independence that it says it has," he said. "The political pressures were enormous... When Mr Valls said he would do all he can to defend bullfighting ...we understood that the ruling" would be influenced, he told AFP.
An animal rights foundation set up by French film star Brigitte Bardot, who along with movie legends Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo had pressed for a ban, said it was "not surprised" and stressed that "the government had intervened in the debate to influence the judges."
The pro-bullfighting lobby for its part said the judgement showed that France, which also allows cockfighting in the north, respected cultural diversity.
"Bullfighting is constitutionally legal, it is enshrined in the constitution," said Guillaume Francois, a lawyer for UVTF, which was set up in 1966 and groups cities which host bullfights.
"The Constitutional Council has just said that it can exist" like all other things from minority cultures, he said.
"This decision is excellent news," said Andre Viard, the head of the National Observatory of Bullfighting (ONCT), hailing the body for "upholding cultural freedom."
Frederic Nihous from the CPNT group of anglers, hunters and sports lovers said bullfighting was "part of the south's DNA."
"The respect of traditions is a duty ... a people without roots, and therefore without traditions, are a people who will die," he said.
Defenders have also pointed to the economic benefits of a sport that they say attracts large numbers of tourists to southern France, especially to hugely popular ferias in cities like Nimes and Arles.