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.
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.
While the French government has grudgingly agreed to support a Basque cultural charter, it is dead against anything that hints at federalism or independence. "To envisage the creation of a so-called "Basque" department so close to the seriously troubled [Spanish] provinces is to say the least, imprudent," said Interior Minister Christian Bonnet. "This government will refuse to take any measures which might one day endanger the territorial integrity of the republic."
Henri Grenet, Bayonne's center-conservative mayor, agrees with the government. "A separate Basque department might create a precedent among other minority groups and fan separatist tendencies," he explains. "It would also put us at an economic disadvantage. We would become one of the smallest administrative areas in the country."
Mayor Grenet, on the other hand, favors other forms of political and administrative decentralization. Like many mayors, members of parliament, and local officials interviewed by this reporter throughout France, he would like to see increased powers of decision and direct elections for the country's 22 regional councils. At present, they are little more than window displays with tightly restricted mandates.
The government's Jacobin reluctance to grant greater autonomy is not just directed at the minority regions such as the Basque country, Brittany, and Corsica, but at France as a whole. The bombs and demontrations of extremists have only drawn attention to one aspect of the government's determination to retain power.
But just as ethnic minorities are becoming increasingly conscious of their cultural identities, the regions are beginning to clamor louder for more responsibility in local affairs.
"A strong central government was justifiable for the past two centuries, but not today," observes Michel Crepeau, the effusive mayor of La Rochelle and leader of the diminutive Radical Left Party. "The modern state with a strong president, weak parliament, and control of the broadcasting media as is the case in France has become the oppressor. The towns and regions need to equilibriate Paris as the other partner in the balance of power."
Although some analysts feel that France's top-heavy centralization stifles economic, social, and political initiative in the provinces and detrimentally leads to the sort of "blockage" many complain about, others on both the left and the right, feel that a strong centralized authority is the secret to political stability.
"We are much smaller than the United States and cannot afford a federal system," one Interior Ministry official said. But when it was suggested that Switzerland seems to have thrived well as a confederation with substantial fiscal and administrative powers delegated to the relatively autonomous cantons, the official smiled tolerantly: "The French are a very individualistic people. A powerful central authority knows what is best for France. We can be respected only if we are united."