Alternative names: Euskera, Vascos
Location: Basque provinces of north-west Spain; also the French Department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Population: 2.2 million, 50% Basque speakers
% of population: 5.5% of Spanish population
Religion: Catholic
Language: Basque (Eskuara)

The Basques are the inhabitants of the region on both sides of the western Pyrenees, although the vast majority live on the southern (Spanish) side. They are physically distinct from neighbouring peoples although still of Mediterranean stock, and their language, which has many dialects, is isolated from other Indo-European languages although it has some similarities with Magyar and Finnic.

The Franco era

The Basque country was not invaded by Moors and so became an asylum for fugitive Christians during the Islamic conquests. It is a strongly Catholic region and the saints Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier were Basques. Basques have never seen themselves as either Spanish or French and have consistently maintained a tradition of independence, which has been assisted by the mountainous terrain of the Basque country. Basques were granted fueros — ancient rights which guaranteed a large measure of self-rule. When Spain centralized its political system during the nineteenth century the existing provinces of Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa, Navarra and Alava were retained but with their constitutions much weakened.

During the Spanish Civil War the Basques sided with the Republicans (although Navarre which is only partly inhabited by Basques was Nationalist) and as a consequence the Basque country was subject to especially vicious treatment by the Nationalist forces, including the bombing of the ancient Basque capital of Guernica by the Germans. With the victory of Franco’s forces a process of revenge began — over 21,000 people were estimated to have died, many thousands more were imprisoned or fled into exile and all vestiges of the ancient constitutions and independent status were removed.

The Basque Country is a relatively wealthy industrialized region, industry having been established by an upper class financial elite with ready access to central government. The working class was, and remains, largely composed of unassimi-lated immigrants and reaction against both groups has contributed to the development of nationalist feeling. During General Franco’s rule regional nationalist sentiment was officially repressed. The use of Basque outside the home was forbidden and cultural and educational activities specifically Basque in nature were similarly banned. From the 1950s onward this repressive policy was relaxed somewhat. Special part-time schools for the teaching of Basque language and culture provided for over 33,000 pupils, some of them the children of immigrant families who by now made up over 50% of the Basque working class.

Basque nationalism

In 1954 the militant organization Euskad Ta Azkatasurra (ETA) (Basque Homeland and Freedom) was formed. ETA was a hierarchically-structured organization dedicated to the overthrow of Franco’s dictatorship. Although at its height ETA had only about 1,000 members its impact was enormous, and it was responsible for an unprecedented degree of terrorist activity including bank robberies, kidnappings and assassinations. The government countered this activity by using strong police tactics in the Basque region. Illegal searches, arrests, detention and brutality towards prisoners were commonplace, and in certain cases military courts were used to try offenders.

Following the death of Franco in 1975 Basques joined together in protests against police action in their region and demanded complete independence from Spain. In the 1977 elections over 75% of the Basque electorate supported parties committed to regional self-government, either socialist parties or avowedly nationalist parties such as the Partido Nacioalista Vasco (PNV). Terrorist activity continued, and it was partly due to ETA-inspired violence that Suarez’s premiership came to an end in 1981; however, popular support for ETA dropped markedly when liberal democracy and regional government became a reality in Spain and many ETA members became active in the conventional political arena, although a new generation of militant nationalists emerged to support ETA.

As with the other three major regions the Basque country has been given a considerable amount of local autonomy through a regional parliament instituted in 1979, in the “Statute of Guernica”. The initial referendum on the new Spanish constitution had been boycotted by a majority of Basques and of those who voted, over one quarter voted against it. However in the referendum on the Statute over 60% of the Basque electorate voted and of these over 80% voted in favour. There is a Basque police force (also created by the Statute of Guernica), the Basque language is used in administration and in education and the Basque flag and symbols used widely. In the Basque parliament in the elections of 1980 and 1984 the PNV became the largest party and also the government; however an internal split in 1986 and regional elections meant that they lost power to the local Socialist parties who became the largest regional party and later formed a coalition with one faction of the PNV (the other forming a new party, the Eusko Alkartasuna (EA)). An important factor in Basque politics was the emergence of Herri Batasuna (HB) (United People), a militant separatist party, with links with ETA. In the regional elections of 1986 it gained over 17% of the vote. Explicitly Basque nationalist parties held 13 seats in the federal Congress of Deputies in the elections of 1986.

Regional autonomy appears to have satisfied the aspirations of most Basques. Basque nationalist terrorism has continued, however, with a series of bombings, mainly against police and army personnel. Civilians have also been killed and some indiscriminate civilian killings have produced demonstrations against terrorism. Basque terrorist activity continues to remain one of the major threats to the stability of the Spanish government, which has dealt with the continuing threat by on the one hand encouraging ETA activists to abandon their position and return to mainstream Basque life, and on the other by enacting harsh anti-terrorist legislation. This double policy has so far been largely successful but there has been criticism of the antiterrorist legislation which is thought by many to be too severe. In November 1983 the Congress of Deputies approved new anti-terrorist measures in the Basque region, including the detention of suspects without trial for up to two-and-a-half years. There have been some attempts to negotiate with ETA officials, some of whom live in exile, but to date this has not been successful in bringing about a political settlement.

During the Franco era the French government took little part in containing terrorist activities, but the presence of exiled ETA members in France and concern with the perhaps 200,000 Basques living on French territory has since caused the authorities to act closely with the Spanish government and France now denies sanctuary to those wanted by the Spanish authorities. In the 1980s it began to deport ETA activists to Spain or elsewhere.

Although terrorism is declining in Spain the Basques continue to feel a sense of grievance against the government. Whereas during the 1970s the provinces of Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa were the two richest in Spain, by 1981 they had fallen to seventh and sixth positions. This loss of wealth is due in part to political instability caused by ETA’s terrorist activities but it also indicates the problems created by the economic recession and the need for a restructuring of industry in the region, especially the heavy industries of ship-building and steel.

The Basques in France

There are no official statistics on the numbers of Basque speakers in France. During the Franco era many Basque and other Spanish exiles fled to France but many of these have since returned to Spain. In addition some French Basques no longer speak the language, which has no official recognition, although some educational courses are conducted in Basque and there is a small Basque press. One estimate gives 80,000 Basque speakers in France, about 40% of the present population of the Department of Pyrénées-Atlantique.

(See also Catalans; Galicians)