The clanging bells of Alpine cows and the bleating of mountain sheep echo on the pastures of the French Alps. But now the valleys of the Vanoise are ringing with more urgent – and quite unexpected – sounds.
“It’s not a place for people, not even for dogs,” says Félix Portello – a bearded 33-year-old shepherd with dark eyes and an imposing physical presence – on the viral video for his Niche à Chien (Dog House). Performing under the moniker PastorX and the Black PatouX, he made the video in protest against the living conditions of shepherds. Many of them have been recruited since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s, which made the return of shepherds a necessity.
Housed in huts measuring just 4m² – the “dog house”, which they often have to share with their sheepdogs – the shepherds can spend up to 15 weeks on the high pastures, without running water or toilets.
Portello, an ex-scientist, is one of a new generation of shepherds – educated and looking to escape the rat race – now populating the mountains. It is an almost spiritual calling, and Portello argues on his online petition that “maintenance of a benevolent and respectful human presence in the mountains,” is as vital a benefit of shepherding as the fattening of the sheep. But it is also a calling that comes with a likely set of political views, and in the song Portello raps, “Walking is not a problem/ My problem is the market” (a play on words: “Marcher c’est pas un problème/ Mon problème c’est le marché”), adding “The truth is, we’re sitting/ On financial resources/ Subsidised on each hectare/ Traders have become mountain-dwellers.”
The balance between environmental protection and commercial activity in France’s national parks has been controversial ever since reforms were introduced in 2006 that increased human interference. Portello raps: “You think you are green, you are not regulated” (“Tu t’crois écolo, t’es pas réglo”), while also throwing barbs at bodies like the Jeunes Agriculteurs and FNSEA unions and the Chambers of Agriculture.
That the shepherd is a highly charged national symbol in France makes Portello’s argument all the more explosive.
Joan of Arc, who defended the land against the English, was said to be a shepherdess (about half of modern shepherds are women, and Portello works alongside a shepherdess named Noémi Gatin, who also performs on Niche à Chien).
Pre-Revolution, before their dominion over the land ended under the guillotine, aristocrats had their portraitists depict them as shepherds, presenting themselves as the embodiment of Rousseau’s idea of nature.
After the statue of Joan of Arc in every French Catholic church, and the oils of Marie Antoinette as a shepherdess, the figure of Portello in a balaclava and plaid shirt rapping on a mountainside is just the latest image in the history of the fight over the ownership of France’s land.