Animal Rights: Slow but Definite Progress

Interview of Regis Bismuth, professor at the Sciences Po Law School and co-editor of Sensibilité animale. Perspectives juridiques (CNRS Editions)*, on advances in animal rights.

The need to end animal suffering has become a major topic of public debate. Scientific experiments, bullfighting and foie gras have all come under insistent criticism. Videos denouncing the conditions in which animals are made to live and die are widely circulated. Veganism, which still had an extremely limited following a few years ago, is gaining in popularity. So what is the law contributing to this environment?

In 2015, the French Civil Code was amended to recognise animals as a “living beings endowed with sensitivity” and no longer as a “movable property”. Is this an important step forward for animal rights?

Yes and no. What people have retained from the new article of the Civil Code (515-14) is the first part, namely that animals “are living beings endowed with sensibility”. Less attention is paid to the second part, which states that “conditional on compliance with the laws that protect them, (they) are subject to the property regime”. So in fact, animals’ legal protection depends mainly on other branches of law, which means that the part this provision plays is very marginal.

What is the origin of animals’ legal status?

Animal law, in Europe at least, has been defined with regard to our relationships with animals, and not in terms of the animal itself in its subjectivity. Animal rights can be traced back to the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, also known as Martin’s Act, adopted in 1822 in England to prohibit acts of cruelty against livestock. It was progress but remained limited to one category of animals. In France, the Grammont Act of 1850 was the first to deal with animal protection by penalising their mistreatment in public. But in this case, it was the public’s sensitivity that was targeted and not animals’ suffering.

It took more than a century for the law to be changed—in 1959—and for mistreatment in private to be punishable by law. Since then, laws to protect animals have been developing steadily, adding animal welfare to the prevention of cruelty. But it is clear that the legislation is still essentially determined by the use we make of animals.

What do you mean by “use” of animals?

To understand properly, you have to consider the animal categories established by law. Farm animals are those destined for “the production of food, wool, hides or other agricultural purposes”. The other categories are pets, recreational animals, and even pests. The economic stakes behind these categories are high, and not just for the agri-food industry. Think, for example, of animals used for scientific experiments or for sports activities.

Are there other issues that come into play?

Yes, many, and they’re often interconnected, but the economy is almost always in the background. Take the debate over bullfighting. Defenders of bullfighting talk first of all about culture and tradition. But they also talk about the revenue and jobs that bullfights generate through cattle rearing and tourism. Another example—which is interesting because it is the subject of legal battles between Canada and Europe—is seal products. In Europe, the sale of seal products is prohibited unless they come from traditional hunting. Canada challenged this ban through the World Trade Organisation, which, on the whole, sided with Europe. However, Canada’s arguments were not unreasonable. Among other things, they pointed to the fact that Europe authorises other, more questionable practices, such as raising pigs in conditions far worse than those of seals, which live in their natural habitat. It’s an important example because it shows that our relationship to animals is different from one place to another. It’s also interesting for the fact that it brings living conditions into play and not only conditions of slaughter.

And what about in EU law? Are animals’ living conditions a concern?

Yes, but on the sidelines. For example, the size of battery cages for chickens is going to be set by EU law to make them bigger. But even as EU law establishes the principle of animal welfare, it provides for exceptions concerning religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage. Of course, all this can change because lawmakers also listen to public opinion.

Yet public opinion tends to pick and choose its causes of indignation.

Public opinion is multi-faceted and is also evolving. Emotion plays an essential role. People are more easily appalled by the suffering inflicted on “cute” animals, or on those deemed noble, such as horses, or intelligent, such as whales. Another factor that counts is closeness to humans. Take laboratory animals, for instance. The suffering of rats that are experimented on to advance our well-being is tolerated better than when experiments are performed on apes. Moreover, EU law heavily limits testing on apes on the grounds that apes demonstrate social behaviour extremely similar to that of humans. But English philosopher Jeremy Bentham disputed the admissibility of intelligence as a criterion at the end of the eighteenth century. He wrote that to merit protection, the question was not whether a being is capable of reason or speech, but whether it can suffer. Otherwise, he argued, we could very well allow ourselves to inflict suffering on infants given that they do not talk or think.

The struggle for animal welfare keeps getting wider...

Absolutely. There’s the issue of circus animals, for example. In a number of European countries, wild animals are banned in circuses and some local councils in France are taking similar measures. Moreover, the circus world is catching on and one of its major figures, André-Joseph Bouglione, has decided to stop using animals in his shows. Dolphinariums are also concerned. A 2017 decree prohibited the reproduction, trade and import of orcas and dolphins. Though it was called into question by the Conseil d’Etat last January, we must not lose sight of the fact that this movement is inevitable. Some of the issues raised are more unexpected, such as glue mousetraps, which have been banned in Ireland. A new law has also been passed in Switzerland stipulating that certain crustaceans must be stunned before being placed in boiling water.

So some significant advances have been set down in law?

Yes, and we’ll see more progress through this sort of initiative than through the Civil Code. Incidentally, this is the observation that led students from the “Corporate Social Responsibility and Innovation” programme at the Sciences Po Law School clinic to conduct a project on animal welfare labelling. The idea is to more effectively regulate the information that appears on products. Progress also owes much to animal welfare associations. They sometimes use questionable methods but to their credit, they have brought certain practices into the public eye and, in the end, have moved the debate forward.

*Régis Bismuth, Fabien Marchadier, Sensibilité animale. Perspectives juridiques (Animal Sensitivity. Legal Perspectives), CNRS Éditions, June 2015
 
Find out more
School of Research opens Courses to Early Stage Researchers from CIVICA Universities

School of Research opens Courses to Early Stage Researchers from CIVICA Universities

Interviews by Alina Thiemann. Read all of the testimonies on the page of the School of Research.

True to its goal of fostering more collaboration in academics across European universities, CIVICA enables doctoral fellows and researchers to exchange on ongoing research, team up for collaborative projects, and network with colleagues through various existing and upcoming joint initiatives and opportunities. Among these is the Early Stage Researcher (ESR) course catalogue, an online resource that brings together classes, workshops and seminars open to (post)doctoral researchers from across the alliance.

More
Olympic Games: 6 Sciences Po athletes compete in Tokyo!

Olympic Games: 6 Sciences Po athletes compete in Tokyo!

From 23 July, they will represent their teams in Tokyo ... but also a little Sciences Po! Six athletes selected for the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games are students in Sciences Po’s Preparatory Certificate for high-level athletes (fr). And for the third time, the French flag will be carried by an alumnus of this programme: Stéphane Houdet will be one of the flag bearers of the French delegation, after Teddy Riner at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 and Michaël Jérémiasz at the Paralympic Games that same year.

More
Angèle Paty: Bikepacking from Montpellier to the Shetland Islands

Angèle Paty: Bikepacking from Montpellier to the Shetland Islands

45 days, 4 countries, 2,500 kilometres – and all of it by bike... Angèle Paty, a former student of the Europe–North America programme on the Sciences Po Reims Campus has set herself a major challenge. After her third year abroad at the University of St Andrews came to an abrupt and unfortunate end due to the pandemic, Paty launched the project SAORSA, meaning “freedom” in Scottish Gaelic. She has made it her mission to return to Scotland by cycling all the way to the Shetland Islands from her hometown of Montpellier – on her own, on muscle power alone. We asked her a few questions before she set off.

More
Where are our 2019 graduates now?

Where are our 2019 graduates now?

The results of the 2021 Graduate Employability Survey on the class of 2019 show that Sciences Po students remain very attractive to employers, with 9 out of 10 graduates in professional activity. Despite a job market facing difficulties, 82% of our 2019 graduates found their first job in less than 6 months, and nearly ¾ of them have a stable profession. There are still just as many (37%) working abroad, in 84 countries. Discover all the results of our survey!

More
Watch Season 2 of our video series FOCUS!

Watch Season 2 of our video series FOCUS!

News passes, ideas stay. FOCUS is Sciences Po’s video series that sheds light on current affairs. In each episode, a researcher or professor explores a topical issue related to his or her field of expertise from an unexpected angle. In three minutes, FOCUS offers an out-of-the-box reflection on the issues that drive public debate and proposes perspectives for understanding and acting.

More
Bachelor students from all over Europe team up for first ever CIVICA European Week

Bachelor students from all over Europe team up for first ever CIVICA European Week

From 8 to 11 June 2021, some 40 undergraduate students from Sciences Po, Bocconi University, the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) and The London School of Economics (LSE) took part in the first edition of the CIVICA European Week. This event, a central element of the CIVICA Engage Track, aimed to foster social engagement in bachelor students from all over Europe through four days of fast-paced learning and team working with peers from varied backgrounds.

More
 Sciences Po, a three-star university for French as a Foreign Language

Sciences Po, a three-star university for French as a Foreign Language

Sciences Po has obtained for the second time the Label Qualité Français langue étrangère (Quality Label for French as a Foreign Language), attaining the maximum score of three stars. Sciences Po has been attributed this label for the quality of its teaching of French as a foreign language, the professionalism and commitment of the teachers and staff, and the conditions in which the students are taught.

More
Keeping books alive: Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, a key patron of Sciences Po

Keeping books alive: Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, a key patron of Sciences Po

Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, the CEO of French holding company FIMALAC and a major patron of the arts, has shown his support for Sciences Po’s activities by making a donation to the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques (FNSP). His generous contribution to the purchase and promotion of books in the humanities and social sciences will enable Sciences Po to take ambitious new steps in its policy for disseminating knowledge. In particular, the donation will go towards the new Sciences Po bookshop opening in the heart of the historic Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood in September 2021.

More
Natacha Valla: “Transformation and transition have become the bread and butter of professional life”

Natacha Valla: “Transformation and transition have become the bread and butter of professional life”

The Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation (SMI) embraces its mission of fostering “inclusive prosperity”. From finance to the creative industries, from large multinationals to budding start-ups, its diverse student cohorts form the economic actors of tomorrow.

Dean Natacha Valla explains the school’s strategies, profiles, future prospects and pedagogical innovations in a world in constant transformation.

More
Who are our 2020 and 2021 graduates?

Who are our 2020 and 2021 graduates?

Bright, committed and resilient students: after two years of studies disrupted by the health crisis, the classes of 2020 and 2021 will receive their hard-earned Master's degrees between 23 and 30 June 2021. More than 5,000 new graduates will be celebrated in a series of highly anticipated ceremonies, organised within the health guidelines and valuing everyone's participation. Who are the students of the classes of 2020 and 2021? Discover their profiles.

More