French Basque Country

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Location of the Basque Country
Northern Basque Country in green
Bilingual French-Basque language signage in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle
Basque pelota courts are found in most villages

The French Basque Country or Northern Basque Country (French: Pays basque français, Spanish: País Vasco francés, Basque: Iparralde, i.e. "the North Side") situated within the western part of the French department of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques constitutes the north-eastern part of the Basque Country.

With 2,869 km², it is delimited in the north by the department of Landes, in the west by the Bay of Biscay, in the south by the Southern Basque Country and in the east by Béarn (although in the Bearnese village of Esquiule Basque is spoken), which is the eastern part of the department. Bayonne and Biarritz (conglomeration BAB) are its chief towns. It is a popular tourist destination and is somewhat distinct from neighbouring parts of either France or the southern Basque Country, since it was not industrialized as Biscay or Gipuzkoa and remained agricultural and a beach destination.

Basques describe the northern Basque Country as the union of three "French provinces" in the northeast of the traditional Basque Country:

  • Lower Navarre (Nafarroa Beherea in Basque, Basse-Navarre in French), until 1789 kingdom of Navarre (linked to the kings of France). 1,284 km².
  • Labourd (Lapurdi in Basque). 800 km².
  • Soule (Zuberoa in Basque). 785 km².

Its Basque name is Iparralde ("Northern Side") while the part of the Basque Country located in Spain is called Hegoalde ("Southern Side").

Its population has been: 126,493 (in 1801); 162,365 (1851); 226,749 (1979) (79% in Labourd, 13% in Lower Navarre, 8% in Soule); 259,850 (1990) (81%; 13%; 6% respectively); 262,000 (1999 census).

According to an inquiry of 2006,[1] 22.5% were bilinguals (French-Basque), 8.6% were French-speakers who understand Basque, and 68.9% were not Basque-speakers. But the results were very different in the three zones; in the inner land (Basse Navarre and Soule) 66.2% speak or understand Basque; in the coast (Labourd) the figure stands at 36.9% ; and in the B.A.B. urban zone (Bayonne-Anglet-Biarritz) only 14.2% speak or understand Basque (20% of the B.A.B. people can speak or understand the Gascon language). The proportion of French-Basque bilingual speakers fell from 26.4% in 1996 to 22.5% in 2006.

There is a Basque nationalist political movement, born in 1963 with the Embata mouvement (forbidden in 1974) and now with Abertzaleen Batasuna and others, which seeks a split of Pyrénées-Atlantiques into two French departments: Pays Basque and Béarn; some other nationalist parties are EAJ, EA and Batasuna which have a reduced, almost symbolic presence, especially when compared to the southern Basque Country. These political parties historically receive fewer than 15% of the votes in the district elections.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a paramilitary group called Iparretarrak (the northerners) used violence to seek independence; it has been inactive in recent years.

On January 29, 1997, the area was made an official "pays" of France under the name "Pays Basque", that is, a representative body promoting several activities, but without its own budget.


Stone decoration in Armendarits, "This house was made by Betiri Echarte and Aimia Iriarte"
French customs system in 1732, with Labourd including Bayonne showing a fiscal system of its own
Basque Lauburu

The Northern Basque Country was for long largely undifferentiated from other areas of what is now Gascony. When Caesar conquered Gaul he found all the region south and west of the Garonne inhabited by a people known as the Aquitani, who were not Celtic and are modernly regarded as Basques (see Aquitanian language). In the early Roman times, the region was first known as Aquitania, and later, when the name Aquitania was extended until the Loire river, as Novempopulania or Aquitania Tertia.

After the Basque rebellions against Roman feudalism in the late 4th and 5th century, the area eventually formed part of the independent Duchy of Vasconia, a blur ethnic polity stretching south of the Garonne River that broke up from the 8th to 9th century under the pressure of Normand raids and feudalism. In the early 9th century, the County of Vasconia was created extending around the Adour River. At this point, Basque language was losing ground to vulgar and written Latin and was increasingly confined to the lands around the Pyrénées. Since 963, the town Saint-Sever is mentioned as "caput vasconiae", interpreted by some as "limit of Vasconia", while others take it as "prominence of Vasconia" on account of its location on a hill overlooking the plains of Vasconia.

In this period northern Basques surely participated in the successive battles of Roncevaux against the Franks, in 778, 812 and 824.

Count Sans Sancion fought against the Franks again between 848 and 858 eventually becoming Duke of Vasconia.

In 1020 Gascony ceded its juridsiction over Labourd, then also including Lower Navarre, to Sancho the Great of Pamplona. This monarch made it a Viscounty in 1023. The area became disputed by the Angevin Dukes of Aquitaine until 1191 when Sancho the Wise and Richard Lionheart agreed to divide the country, Labourd remaining under Angevin sovereignty and Lower Navarre under Navarrese control.

Meanwhile, Soule (Zuberoa) was constituted as an independent viscounty, generally supported by Navarre against the pretensions of the Counts of Béarn, though at times also it admitted a certain Angevin overlordship.[2]

With the end of the Hundred Years' War, Labourd and Soule passed to the Crown of France as autonomous provinces (pays d'êtat).

After the conquest of Upper Navarre by Castile in 1512–21, the still independent north-Pyrenean part of Navarre took the lead of the Huguenot party in the French Wars of Religion. In this time the Bible was first translated into the Basque language.[3] Eventually Henry III of Navarre became King of France but kept Navarre as a formally independent state, until in 1610 this separation was suppressed. In 1634, Axular gives in his literary work Gero a rough description of the extent of Basque at the time, with the language comprising all the provinces now known as Basque Country "and [in] so many other places".

The three Northern Basque provinces still enjoyed great autonomy until the French Revolution suppressed it radically, as it did elsewhere in France, eventually creating the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, half Basque and half Gascon (Bearn, another sovereignty linked to the crown of France).


Main article: Basque culture

Northern Basques continue to practice many Basque cultural traditions. The town of Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle is well known for its Herri Urrats celebration.[4]


The Northern Basque Country has 29,759 companies, 107 companies for 1,000 inhabitants and an annual growth of 4.5% (between 2004 and 2006).[5]

66.2% of companies are in the tertiary sector (services), 14.5% in the secondary sector (manufacturing) and 19.3% in the primary sector (mainly agriculture, agribusiness, fishing and forestry). This includes an AOC wine, Irouléguy AOC.

Although the Northern Basque Country is part of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques for most administrative entities, it does have its own Chamber of Commerce ( the CCI Bayonne-Pays-Basque) and a distinct economy with a pole of competences around the boardsports industry including companies such as Quiksilver and Volcom based on the Basque Coast.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fourth Sociolinguistic Survey. 2006: Basque Autonomous Community, Northern Basque Country, Navarre, Basque Country, Basque Government, Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2008, ISBN 978-84-457-2777-5.
  2. ^ Baja Navarra y Zuberoa (La Historia y los Vascos –
  3. ^ "Joanes Leizarraga Vida Y Obra" (PDF). Euskomedia. Retrieved 2008-01-28.  Article in Spanish
  4. ^ "Celebration of Herri Urrats, traditional festival to help Basque language schools in the Northern Basque Country". Basque Heritage Worldwide (BETA). Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  5. ^ "Invest Pays Basque". CCI Bayonne. Retrieved 2008-06-05.