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French minorities chafe at central rule from Paris

By Edward GirardetSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 1981



Bayonne, France

The interior of the 13th century Gothic cathedral was uncomfortably cold, and the 50-odd young French Basque nationalists huddled in sleeping bags along the far side of the nave. A huge red, green, and white flag symbolizing a united Euzkadi (Basque nation) was hung on a wall.

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On a 24-hour sympathy vigil last week in this picturesque Basque town off the Bay of Biscay, they were supporting a hunger strike by representatives of French ethnic minorities including Bretons, Corsicans, and West Indians begun April 10 at Bourges, the geographic center of France.

They were protesting against what they see as government political repression as well as the threatened extradition of nine Spanish Basque fugitives suspected of having ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) terrorist links.

"The French government is doing everything possible to prevent the Basques from assuming their true national identity," complained Marie-Txu, a member of the Basque "Laguntza" (support) committee. "They are suffocating our culture and economically neglecting us in favor of tourism. We don't want to be a vacationland for Parisians and foreigners."

As in other parts of provincial France, the Basque country has long suffered from a heavy rural exodus. The dearth of jobs in the towns has forced many Basques either to emigrate or to seek work in north of France.

But increasing numbers now say they would prefer to live, work, or study in their home provinces if the possibilities existed. Despite government efforts, unemployment remains high and frustrated job-seekers feel they have little to gain from the mushrooming resort development along the coast and in the mountains.

The Basque separatist movement, like the movements of other French minority groups, remains a relatively marginal phenomenon although it appears to be gaining momentum, particularly among the young. They have rediscovered their cultural identities through politics, music, and art and seek to preserve their culture.

But the concept of "Zaspiak-bat" (loosely translated as "the seven make one") , namely the unification of France's three Basque provinces to the north with their four Spanish counterparts to the south, commands limited public support. And few Corsicans or Bretons would favor independence.

"The average Basque is highly conservative and considers himself a Frenchman first," noted Jean Abeberry, editor of the Basque political weekly "Enbata." "He would never dream of leaving the republic. Yet there is an undeniable trend toward Basquism among all segments of society."

This diluted form of nationalism is reflected by the desire to broaden the teaching of the Basque language in schools (just over one third of the area's 200,000 inhabitants speak the tonque) as well as demands for greater regional autonomy.Many Basques feel they would be better served by having a separate Basque department instead of being part of an administrative subdivision as at present.