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Articles by Beatrice Labonne

      French Cowboys Don’t Wear Jeans

    The French cowboy was officially born 100 years ago in the Camargue in the south of France in Provence.  In fact, he was reborn as a folk hero, American Wild West style in 1909. Cowboys have always lived in the marshes of the Camargue (the delta of the Rhône River). The region is the ancestral home of the diminutive black Camargue bull, the smallish white Camargue horse and the normal-size pink Camargue flamingo.  Camargue cowboys are known as gardians, and like their American counterparts they herd cattle.  Cattle ranches are called manades which is the French translation of manado, or herd, in the local Occitan language.   

    The inventor of the folk hero gardian was the romantic eccentric “Marquis” Folco de Baroncelli of Provence.  Because he bred livestock and loved the Camargue’s way of life, he dedicated his life to revive, re-organize and promote its local traditions. On 16 September 1909 the marquis founded the Nacioun Gardiano1 which in Occitan means the Gardian Nation.  The Camargue’s traditions are centered on the bulls and additionally on the horse and its rider.  The marquis had recently befriended William Frederic Cody aka Buffalo Bill during his 1889 European and French tour.  Consequently, some authors claimed that Baroncelli was so impressed by the Wild West folklore that he wanted to replicate it in the Camargue which offered the necessary attributes.  Other pundits believed that the marquis, who was a dyed-in-the wool Provençal and an Occitan speaker wanted to protect the local traditions against the centralizing and controlling forces of the Paris-based French République.  

    In reviving the rural traditions this pioneer regionalist may not have anticipated that he was creating a winning tourism business for the region. The gardians of Camargue are the guardian angels of the bull herds. The bulls are free range, wild and plucky.  The gardians don’t participate in rodeos like their Wild West counterparts; they don’t throw lassos either.  They ride all day long to catch calves for branding, take bulls from the pastures to the paddock abrivado in Occitan and to the arènes or rings where bulls and men defy one another.  Bulls are mainly bred to become kings of the arènes during the courses camarguaises.   

    Courses camarguaises are the local version of bullfighting without the blood.  If blood is occasionally spilt it is that of the man who teases the bulls. This man is known as arasseteur.  With the help of a hook (rasset) he tries to remove colorful ribbons artfully pinned between the bull’s horns. Gardians, bulls and horses are also fixtures of the fêtes votives, the annual patron saint celebrations of the hundreds of villages in and around Camargue2


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      Figure 1: Camargue Gardians enter the arenas with their charges in St Laurent d'Aigouse, August 2009 

    To put to the test his reviving efforts, the marquis sought the approval of experts.  In his view, no one could do this better than Buffalo Bill and his Sioux chiefs. When Buffalo Bill returned to France in 1905 he traveled to the south.  The party set up its big tent in Nimes, a town located north of the Camargue.  The marquis invited the Americans to bull sorting and branding in le Cailar, a village still renowned for its festive and genuine fêtes votives.  From there, men, horses and bulls traveled to the village of Gallargues a distance of 10 kms.  The Americans were so impressed by the show that they presented the marquis a pair of pearl-embroidered Indian moccasins.  The whole episode was reported in a famous Occitan newspaper.  The Nacioun Gardiano had successfully passed the test. 

    One would have thought that Buffalo Bill traveled to Nimes to see for himself the city where denim, the fabric of blue jeans was born.  In 19th century America, the rugged blue cotton twill fabric called serge de Nimes became denim for short.  Dry goods merchant Levi Straus imported loads of the textile through the port of Genoa (or Gênes in French), from which the word jeans is derived.  Levi Straus made his fortune by selling his riveted pants to both cowboys and gold diggers toiling in the American Old West. 

    The Camargue of Baroncelli’s time was unaware of the blue jeans craze in gold rush California.  Ironically, blue jeans are anathema to the gardians’ outfit.  No genuine gardian will dare to wear them in public. The marquis insisted that the gardians follow a very strict dress code. They were required to wear cotton moleskin pants in grey, beige or black. However, the black soft brimmed hat was optional. 


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                          Figure 2: Camargue abrivado: Gardians escorting two black bulls in 2008!  

    When the marquis founded the Nacioun Gardiano he may not have anticipated that the trade would become increasingly feminine.  It is not an entirely surprising development as there are more girls than boys in French riding schools. Reflecting the French race mix, the guardian business attracts riders of African descent.    

    Now the Nacioun Gardiano is celebrating its 100-year anniversary.  The marquis may not have foreseen that his brainchild would still entertain the local folks, as well as attract thousands of tourists to the Camargue.  The region’s folklore is unique in France as both tourists and locals cheer together the bulls, horses and men.  Horse and bull shows are vital to the local economy. It is a small price to pay to keep old traditions alive.  Buffalo Bill and his Sioux would have certainly approved. 

    Beatrice Labonne

    Calvisson, France

    September 2009





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