After 99 years, Spanish town wages 'peace' with France

Nestled away in the desolate mountains of Sierra Filabres, the whitewashed and red-tiled little Andalusian village of Lijar looks peaceful enough.

But Lijar is at war with France . . . and has been for 99 years.

There are no heavily armed peasants, no sentries, not even ferocious hounds to give a clue. Although strangers are eyed warily at first, no one seems to be in a panic.

Women dressed in black sprinkle water from their front steps to keep the dust down, and a few workers straggle home from nearby fields, orchards, or marble quarries at dusk.

But Lijar - in a burst of small-town, popular bravado over the snubbing of the then Spanish king - declared war on France in 1883. And now, Socialist Mayor Diego Sanchez is finding it is harder to stop a ''war'' than to start it.

''We want an official end to hostilities,'' says Sanchez earnestly, something ''signed by a French official - an ambassador or similar.''

But the French are being stubborn again. They don't seem to understand the need to set the record straight bureaucratically. Mayor Sanchez says he has written repeatedly to the French Embassy in Madrid but has never received an answer.

''We want peace with France and entry into the Common Market,'' he says, ''in spite of the way the French have burned and destroyed our fruit and vegetable trucks at the border.'' (Mayor Sanchez, who is also a truck driver, is outraged over the treatment given to Spanish produce at the border by angry present-day French farmers.)

At the small plaza cafe, Isidoro and Maria Molina, the couple who own the small establishment that also serves as a canned goods store, hand out freshly picked apricots to customers. They want an official peace, too. They explain that last year two French journalists passed through and offered to sign a peace treaty.

''They meant well, I'm sure,'' Mr. Molina says. But he adds, a little insulted, ''But of course they weren't nearly important enough.''

Mayor Sanchez, seated on a stone bench in the modest town plaza, is eager to tell the story of how Lijar (population 600) declared war on France in 1883.

''It was the 14th of October and our then Mayor Don Miguel Garcia Saez, a really fiery character who was known as the 'terror of the Sierra Filabres,' called an emergency meeting of the village council. He had heard about the rude treatment Spanish King Alfonso XII had received from the people of Paris during a visit the previous month.

''If you don't believe me, it's all in the town records. We declared war on France. There were no Frenchmen in the village and no one actually set out, but we were ready,'' Mr. Sanchez explains.

For the still dubious visitor, the original declaration of war signed by nine council members and the impetuous Don Miguel can be examined in the town hall, which also serves as the village school.

''When King Alfonso passed through Paris,'' the declaration reads, ''on 29th September last (1883), he was insulted, stoned, and truly offended by miserable crowds belonging to the French nation. In the most significant way we must protest at such an attack.''

The quaintly handwritten document goes on to relate the story of a heroic old woman who, during the French Napoleonic invasion 75 years earlier, had single-handedly killed 32 French soldiers who had taken over her house.

The fiery Don Miguel, says Mayor Sanchez with a chuckle, figured that if one old woman could tackle the enemy that way, then the 300 working men of Lijar should be a formidable force, indeed.

But, declaration or no, nothing more happened. The war never came to Lijar. Don Miguel never led a battle other than legal ones. He lived out the rest of his long life as a fiery lawyer.

Today, life goes on in the village as it has for centuries. The main livelihood is provided by growing potatoes, almonds, olives, apricots, and oranges. Silk from mulberry trees used to be an important trade, but hewing out local white marble from the mountains is more profitable these days.

Every August, the population grows threefold as emigrants return for the annual fiesta. Ironically half the population has emigrated to ''enemy'' territory to work.

And, unless an important French official can be persuaded to detour 31/2 hours off the main Almeria coastal highway through winding mountainous roads and countryside, Lijar will be able to celebrate next year its 100-year war with France.

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