Basque in France
Institut de Sociolingüística Catalana
Version française
Basque in France
  1. Introduction
  2. The language in the country
    1. General information on the language community
    2. Geographical and language background
    3. General history and history of the language
    4. Legal status and official policies
  3. The use of the language in various fields
    1. Education
    2. Judicial Authorities
    3. Public Authorities and services
    4. Mass media and Information technology
    5. The Arts
    6. The business world
    7. Family and social use of the language
    8. Transnational exchanges
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

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2. The language in the country

2.1. General information on the language community

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2.2. Geographical and language background

The Basque language is spoken in France in the Département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The Basque-speaking territory, known in Basque by the name of Iparralde or Euskal Herria Nord, is divided into three areas (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea and Zuberoa) and covers an area of 3,182 km.

The 1990 census registered a total population of 250,161 inhabitants, concentrated mainly in the Lapurdi district. The population had steadily increased throughout the previous thirty years, from 205,000 in 1960 to 219,000 in 1970 and 237,000 in 1981. The increase is due mainly to the high percentage of retired people who have settled in the region and the appeal of the Basque coast as a location for second homes. In fact, in the two inland areas of Nafarroa Beherea and Zuberoa, more than 80% of the population over 16 years of age were born in the territory of parents who were also born there, whereas the corresponding figure for Lapurdi is only 57%, with 35% of the adult population having been born outside the region.

In general, the standard of living in the region is close to the French average, although in the inland areas the average per capita income of Basque speakers is slightly below that of non-speakers.

As far as the linguistic demography is concerned, a survey conducted in 1991 registered 85,300 Basque speakers (Euskalduns) who were either monolingual or functionally bilingual (32_8%). The proportion of Basque speakers is higher in Nafarroa Beherea (62%) and in Zuberoa (55%) than in Lapurdi (27%). Almost 59% of the population have no command of Basque. Of those people whose first childhood language was Basque, 83% are still Basque speakers, whereas only 4% whose first language was French can speak Basque.

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2.3. General history and history of the language

It would seem that the ancestors of the Basques populated the area in very early times. Since the birth of Christ the region has been invaded by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Huns and Moors. In the High Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Navarre was very powerful, its territory extending to both sides of the Pyrenees. Surrounded by expansionist neighbours (Castile, Aragon and France), the kingdom was conquered in 1512 by the King of Aragon and Castile and divided into seven provinces, although Lower Navarre, beyond the Pyrenees, was to retain a certain degree of independence for a few decades before being incorporated into the Kingdom of France. The division of the territory between two States resulted in a weakening of the traditional economic exchanges between the two great regions, particularly after the customs posts were moved in the 19th century as a consequence of the first Carlist War in Spain.

North of the Pyrenees, the use of Basque as a literary language is documented around the mid-16th century by anthologies of poetry, and in 1571 a Basque version of the New Testament appeared. Nevertheless, Basque was never used as the language of administration in the region.

It seems that the decline of Basque and its replacement by French have been due primarily to the effects of administration and universal education, because it was systematically marginalized and prohibited in these domains. This process has been reinforced since the middle of the 20th century by the appearance of the mass media and the migratory movements into the region.

In recent years numerous associations have launched initiatives for the promotion of Basque, some of them with the support of the European Community, although their endeavours have had little practical impact. Examples are Seaska (Basque schools), AEK (Basque courses for adults), Euskalzaindia (Royal Academy of the Basque Language), Euskadi Irratia (Radio Basque) and Euskal Herrian Euskaraz.

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2.4. Legal status and official policies

The Basque language has the status of a regional language in France and as such is tolerated; that, however, does not automatically result in promotion measures, although some regional media (Sud Ouest, France 3, Radio France, etc.) do allocate it a certain amount of space.

Although the French Government considers Basque to be a manifestation of the country's rich cultural diversity, the local population generally seem to think that this does little to encourage the promotion and use of Basque within the region.

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3. The use of the language in various fields

3.1. Education

Given that the regional administration has no powers in the domain of education and that the national authorities pay scant attention to the teaching of regional languages, it is the local authorities which are responsible for establishing a particular place for Basque within the education system.

As far as preschool and primary levels are concerned, only a few schools use Basque as a teaching medium, while others offer the option of taking Basque as a subject. Apparently, the demand for Basque courses has risen constantly over the past few years. At the present time, some 3,000 pupils are learning Basque at the elementary stage, chiefly in private schools, where the influence of parents is strongest. In addition, the Seaska association of Basque schools, founded in 1969, controls a network of 18 schools with 90 teachers and around 1,300 pupils (900 in Lapurdi, 300 in Nafarroa Beherea and 100 in Zuberoa). As for the funding system, 70% of the cost is met by the State and 30% by the parents. The association is currently negotiating the assumption by the State of the school fees for secondary pupils.

At secondary level, only a very few schools use Basque as a classroom language and only one school teaches Basque as a compulsory subject (Basque as a second language from the third year of secondary school or as an option from the fifth year of secondary education), although it seems that Basque has been in the ascendant for some time. Nevertheless, there is little teaching material available besides language courses and course materials on regional history and geography.

As far as the higher level of education is concerned, only the Institut d'Etudes Basques (IEB) in Bayonne offers an entire programme of Basque studies. Basque is the main teaching language there. Only a few other higher education centres possess some material for teaching Basque. However, the situation recently improved somewhat with the creation of a diploma of general university studies (Diplôme d'études universitaires générales - DEUG), a bachelor's degree (licence), a master's degree (maîtrise) and a competitive examination for a diploma in secondary education (Concours d'Aptitude d'Enseignement dans le Secondaire - CAPES) in Basque at Bordeaux.

In the domain of adult education, the only initiatives have been those taken by the AEK, which is responsible for organizing Basque courses for adults. There do not appear to be any other initiatives for the promotion of Basque in adult education, such as the establishment of course-evaluation bodies, in-service training for teachers, monitoring of training, etc. Lastly, the federation of Ikastolas (Basque schools) organizes an open race (Herri Urrats) every year as a means of helping to defray the cost of running these schools.

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3.2. Judicial authorities

Basque has no legal status in the region's courts, although it seems that documents submitted in Basque are admitted. As far as use of the language during proceedings is concerned, French citizens may not use Basque, although Spanish citizens, on the other hand, may address the court in Basque when appearing as witnesses or defendants. In such cases interpreters are easily available.

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3.3. Public authorities and services

On the whole, Basque is rarely used in dealings between national or regional administrative bodies and the public. It appears that the local authorities are normally quite happy to accept the use of Basque in certain cases.

With regard to the language used by public and semipublic services, they communicate exclusively in French. The exact same situation seems to apply to Basque place names and to the use of Basque forenames and surnames, although some municipalities have erected bilingual road signs.

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3.4. Mass media and information technology

Three periodicals written entirely in Basque are on sale in the region: Egunkaria (circulation 400), Herria (3,000) and Argia (100). Three other weeklies use some Basque, namely Enbata, with a circulation of 1,500), Ekaitza (1,500) and Har Hitza (500). The regional daily newspaper Sud-Ouest publishes one article per week in Basque.

In the field of broadcasting, none of the region's public radio stations broadcast all their programmes in Basque, and only Radio France-Pays Basque broadcasts an hour each day in Basque, five days a week, to around 60,000 listeners. Three private radio stations broadcast 105 hours per week in Basque, namely Gure Irratia in Lapurdi, Irulegiko Irratia in Nafarroa Beherea and Iberokobotza in Zuberoa. Lastly, the private station Lapurdi Irratia/Radio Labourg broadcasts 50% of its programmes in Basque (six hours per day). However, a survey conducted in 1991 registered rather low audience figures for Basque radio programmes, with only 41% of Basque speakers stating that they listened to radio programmes in Basque for at least one hour daily.

The public television channel France 3-Euskal Herria transmits three hours of programmes in Basque per annum, whereas in the past it offered six hours per annum in Basque. There are no private television channels in the region. Nevertheless, approximately 15 to 20% of the population of the Basque-speaking territory can receive Euskal Telebista, the television channel of the Spanish Basque Country. Here, too, the viewing figures are very low, only 8% of Basque speakers and 3% of French speakers stating that they watch television programmes in Basque for at least one hour per day.

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3.5. The Arts

Although we do not possess data on the number of books published in Basque in the region, the number seems to be very small, and the only volumes that exist seem to be school textbooks, children's books, new apostolic briefs and religious works.

On the other hand, the use of Basque in traditional music and in pop or rock music is considerable, with a good dozen groups having recently recorded discs.

As far as the theatre is concerned, one professional comedy company, Fraganti-Maskarada Kukubiltxo, performs entirely in Basque, as do five amateur companies. Basque is totally absent from the cinema.

Every year there are five or six bilingual cultural festivals which attract great public interest, for example Nafarroaren Eguna, Bertsolari Xapelketa and Euskal Kantu Xapelketa. The Korrika is a race that passes through all the territories where Basque is spoken, in which the participants pay an entry fee according to the number of kilometres they wish to run; these fees help to meet the cost of the AEK Basque courses.

One of the main problems relating to the promotion of Basque in this sector lies in the fact that there is practically no official policy (national, regional or local) designed to support the introduction and use of Basque in the cultural domain, the only official aid taking the form of selective grants to the Basque Cultural Institute.

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3.6. The business world

The Basque language is an advantage to applicants for certain posts involving contact with the public. Certain workers sometimes use Basque at work, particularly in the sectors of agriculture, crafts and trades, commerce and banking; employees of the Basque media and teachers of Basque also use the language at work.

As for advertising, roadside advertisements almost never use Basque. Nevertheless, advertising on Basque-language radio stations is almost always done in Basque. In the sphere of consumer information, only a very few products are labelled in Basque (mainly local cheeses and wines).

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3.7. Family and social use of the language

A recent survey relating to the oral Basque tradition indicated that most of the children of euskaldun parents (74%) had Basque as their first language. On the other hand, in young families it seems that only a minority of especially committed parents and those parents who live in rural areas pass on Basque to their children, a phenomenon that seems to have become increasingly prevalent since the fifties.

Everyday use of Basque among the euskalduns is more common in interaction with family members, at the market and at church than in the other areas of communication, where it is very rarely used - speaking to bank staff, superiors at work and teachers at school. Only one-third of the Basque speakers stated that all or most of their friends and relatives were native Basque speakers.

As far as religion is concerned, Basque is quite favourably placed. Between 70 and 90% of the clergy speak euskera. About half of all religious services are held in Basque, and families are free to choose the language of ceremonies such as baptisms, marriages, funerals, etc. In addition, a large percentage of Basque speakers (between 30 and 50%) are regular churchgoers, which, given the traditional influence of the clergy in the Basque Country, is an important factor in the preservation of the language.

Be that as it may, the future of Basque in the region is perceived by the population in general as highly uncertain in view of the gradual decline in its daily use. According to a survey conducted in 1991, although 27% of the population believe that people speak more Basque today than about ten years ago, a far greater number (around 50%) believe the opposite, a view based on the fact that the younger generations speak far less Basque than their elders. This is confirmed by the historical development in the number of Basque speakers in the region: in the early 19th century there were around 100,000 Basque speakers, whereas there are no more than 80,000 now, although the regional language continues to serve as one of the main symbols of a collective identity.

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3.8. Transnational exchanges

Numerous cross-border exchanges have taken place since the eighties, especially in the domains of teaching, book publishing and cultural activities designed to promote Basque on both sides of the Pyrenees. Two important initiatives, for instance, have been taken in the framework of the Aquitaine-Euskadi Cooperation Fund, a programme set up for cross-border promotion activities in the economic, scientific and educational fields, etc. The first of these initiatives was the agreement to conduct the sociolinguistic survey of the Iparralde, and the second was the agreement whereby the population on the French side could receive the programmes transmitted by Euskal Telebista.

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4. Conclusion

Since it seems that the various administrative authorities represented in the region devote little attention to the promotion of Basque, the only real progress in the use of Basque has taken place in the realm of education.

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