French hunters with hounds have sparked widespread outrage after chasing a stag into a residential front garden before finishing off the exhausted animal while police looked on.
Stag and deer hunting with hounds is flourishing in France, where - unlike in the UK - the tradition has until now faced little challenge from politicians or animal-rights activists.
However, there has been uproar over images and film taken by anti-hunt activists of hunters killing a tired but otherwise unhurt stag in a residential area on the outskirts of the forest of Compiègne, northeast of Paris.
It prompted France's environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, to slam hunting with hounds as "a practice from another century" that "prolongs the agony" of the animal.
The film, from Oct 21, shows a stag sitting in the front garden in the village of Lacroix-Saint-Ouen. As hunters clamber over the garden fence - the owner was reportedly away - distressed local children can be heard saying: "They're not going to kill it, are they?"
Armed police then move to prevent protesters approaching as the hunters shoot the stag (off camera) and drag off its carcass, cleaning up afterwards. They later reportedly let the dogs devour the carcass. The ceremony, known as “la curée”, is performed as a tribute to the prey and to reward the hounds.
The film, relayed by a well-known French comedian, received widespread media attention and was viewed tens of thousands of times.
Late last month, a group of 500 locals and anti-hunt activists staged a protest in nearby Saint-Jean-aux-Bois to call for the abolition of hunting with hounds.
A petition addressed to the mayor of the village where the kill took place has received almost 180,000 signatures.
It argues that the hunters had no right to kill the stag, as the "law stipulates it is forbidden to enter private property where the stag sought shelter unless it is wounded". The rule is called "droit de suite" (right to follow through). "This was not the case," they said.
Another petition calling for an end to the "barbaric and extremely cruel practice" from the animal welfare foundation, 30 Millions d'amis (30 Million Friends), has garnered 97,000 signatures and has been sent to Mr Hulot.
Last week, the French society for the protection of animals, SPA, filed a legal complaint against hunt leader Alain Drach, the son of the baroness Monique de Rothschild, for "serious abuse and acts of cruelty" - a crime carrying a maximum penalty of two year in prison and a €30,000 fine. It also included the national hunting with hounds society and "any other person or authority having enabled or facilitated this massacre".
"To pursue an animal on horseback with dogs until it is exhausted and then kill it with a weapon for entertainment is a sadistic practice," said Eric Gaftarnik, SPA secretary general and lawyer, who wants hunting with hounds banned in France.
When asked to comment public reaction, Edouard Philippe, the French prime minister, said: "All this suggests a societal debate is needed on this type of hunting, which is increasingly raising concern in public opinion."
The French Society for Hunting with Hounds. denied any wrongdoing. "The dogs didn't leave the state forest, police were forewarned and after telephone contact with the owner, who was absent at the time, Pierre de Boisguilbert, its president.
The owner later told France 3 television she had not given her authorisation to kill the stag.
After an internal inquiry, the French Society ordered the hunting party to cancel all hunts for a month and suspend Mr Drach as master of the hounds until the end of the season.
"This time of incident mustn't happen," he told Le Monde. "The party should have taken precautions to ensure the hunt avoided residential areas."
But he also condemned what he called a campaign of slander and "numerous death threats" against Mr Drach.
Detractors insist this is far from an isolated incident.
One petition signatory, Jessica Quaglio, who lives in the wood of Rosière aux Salines, eastern France, said hunters came within 10 metres of her front gate "every weekend".
She said she was too afraid to let her pet labradors out in the garden "for fear these hunter imbeciles mistake our dogs for game".
Despite the uproar, hunt membership in France has doubled in 40 years to about 10,000. The number of “followers” on bicycles and in vehicles has risen to 500,000.
France’s nearly 390 officially registered hunts — more than any other country — mainly pursue deer or boar in forests. The tradition is less arduous than Britain’s 340 hunts, in which riders gallop across fields.
Hunters are a political force to be reckoned with in France, where “obstruction to hunting” is an offence liable to a fine of nearly £1,300.
France has more than 1 million registered hunters, forming the second biggest lobby group after farmers.
There are regular human casualties from hunting accidents. Earlier this month, a 69-year-old woman was shot dead in her garden after a bullet fired by a hunter flew through her hedge in Taussac in the Aveyron department in southern France.
Last year, 18 people were killed in hunting accidents in France and 351 have been killed since 2001, but most of the victims were involved in the hunt.