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French Basques Hope Peace, EU Will Lead to Autonomy : Pyrenees: Brethren intend to follow Spanish Basques’ example in appealing to the European Union.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Cash machines glow with Basque-language instructions. Bilingual road signs are going up. Students can take exams in a language once discouraged by the government.

The French Basque country, long known for violence by Basque separatists, seems to be starting down a peaceful path that local leaders hope will lead to autonomy.

Ethnic Basques--a people of unknown origin that settled in the region thousands of years ago--have been running local affairs across the border in their part of Spain since 1979. Basque extremists there face heavy pressure from the public and police.

Now, the same thing seems to be on its way in the neighboring French Basque country, although minor bombings by militants continue to damage public buildings--a contrast to the bloodshed by Basque radicals in Spain who target police and other authority figures.

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Despite their hopes, Basque leaders will not have an easy time persuading the government in Paris to give them self-rule. France’s government is one of the most centralized in Europe, and it fears that concessions to the Basques would encourage nationalist movements in Brittany and Corsica.

The Basques hope to overcome that resistance by turning to the European Union for help in developing a “Euroregion” that would integrate the French and Spanish Basque areas. The policy could serve as a model to settle other violent ethnic conflicts in the EU, they say.

“In all of Europe, there’s no country so centralized as France. They’re afraid of the smallest amount of local power,” said Filgi Claverie, head of cultural affairs for the city of Biarritz. “The Basque problem can only be solved in the European realm.”

Peio d’Uhalt, a spokesman for the Patriotic Movement of the Left, said the goal is unification of the two Basque regions. His group is an ally of the separatist Iparetarrak movement, which has carried out bombings in France.

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“The Basque country now exists only in cooking,” D’Uhalt said in the group’s headquarters in Little Bayonne, a Basque quarter filled with trendy bars, restaurants and political activists.

Claude Marcory, an official in the Ministry of Interior in Paris, bristles at the idea of a united Basque region.

“The (French) republic is one; the territory is one. What remains is to share the administration. The autonomy of a region is not even in the French culture. It’s not the ‘Basque country’; it’s Aquitaine. And France is not Spain,” she said.

There are an estimated 50,000 Basque speakers among the 250,000 people living in France’s three Basque provinces. The Spanish region has about 750,000 Basques out of 2 million residents.

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In a Basque bookstore in Little Bayonne, a regional map shows the French-Spanish border as an almost invisible dotted line. Basques on either side of the border refer to their areas as “the North” and “the South,” without mentioning either country.

France’s Basque country, a mix of coastal resorts and depressed towns in the Pyrenees mountains, should have more links to the nearby industrialized Spanish Basque country, Basque moderates say.

In common with other regional groups seeking decentralization, Basques want more control over development, education and tax allocation.

“The priority here is tourism. Without throwing that out, we want to develop local production,” D’Uhalt said.

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There is some local initiative. A steelmaker in San Sebastian, Spain, plans to open a factory in Bayonne in two years. But few other major projects are planned.


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