Jean-Louis Davant Iratzabal (Urrüstoi- -Larrabile, 1935) has borne witness to the most relevant milestones in Basque contemporary history. As a young man, he got captivated by Basque cultural activism, conducting thereafter a prolific work in Basque linguistics, as well as politics. Agronomist, full member of Euskaltzaindia or Basque Language Academy, teacher, writer, political activist, author of pastorals —the traditional plays in the region of Zuberoa—, Davant has been prolific in many fields, addressing a wide number of intellectual issues. However, most of them refer back to the same concern, Basque cultural activism.
He inhabits now the same village where he was born, located in Pettarra, a subdivision of Zuberoa (Northern Basque Country), a bucolic area. We interviewed him there in a mild afternoon of autumn.
You were born in 1935 at Ürrüstoi-Larrabile, Zuberoa, a bordering area with the Béarn. What do you remember of the one-time Zuberoa during your childhood?
Back in my childhood, Basque language could be heard everywhere in Zuberoa, except for Mauléon. The people my age from Mauléon did understand Basque, but could not speak it. Following the Second World War, children started to reply in French to their Basque speaking parents, and it did not take long until language transmission ground to a halt. The teachers attacked the Basque language.
During that period, similarly to all Basque children of your age, you underwent a schizophrenic situation: Basque language prevailed at home and the street, but school banned the people’s language. Could a child of seven or eight years old realize they were part of a vetoed language and nation?
In the state-run school of Ürrüstoi, we could not speak Basque, but the teacher was not harsh on us, despite originating from the Landes; he had married a Basque woman from here, surnamed Salaberry. I was not aware of a persecution, I just had to learn French, and that was it. Outside school we could live in Basque with all tranquillity. Additionally, it was wartime, we had our main enemy right in front of us, the German Army, and that odious presence instilled French nationalism in us.
When I was twelve years-old, I enrolled in the catholic lycée of Saint François in Mauléon, instructed by approximately twenty priests as teachers; only two of them originated from Béarn, and except for two, the Basques did not speak to us in Basque, even in the breaks in between shifts. Finally, a Basque-minded person from Lapurdi (Labourd) arrived called Pierre Charritton, who every week provided instruction on Basque language in the evening, off regular courses, as allowed by the Law «Deixonne» since 1951.
As many young men from the Northern Basque Country, you were drafted to the army in Algeria. Did the conflict in Algeria affect you and your way of thinking?
In Algeria, I saw France was not the Virgin Mary we had learnt, «La Madone» of De Gaulle, «Notre-Dame la France»… By contrast, I came to detest France, at least I abhorred the state of France for its brute violence, and I came out almost an anarchist from the experience.
The writer Joan-L. Lluis from Northern Catalonia stated the following on French linguistic nationalism in an excellent book translated into Basque, Nire zakurrarekin solasean Frantziaz eta frantsesez: “France has attempted to suppress these languages [minorized languages spoken in the Hexagon], and that has got a name, linguicide. If linguicide was to be accepted as a criminal action, a crime against human heritage, and if it were denounced internationally, France should face justice in court on at least eight counts referring to Alsacian, Britton, Basque, Flemish, Catalan, Corsican, Occitan and Provençal, all of them minorized languages existing in the Hexagon, and France would be probably condemned in all eight cases”. Do you agree?
Yes indeed on linguicide charges, and additionally, on ethnocide charges, since France removed anything Basque from the school network and the public domain. The teachers did not learn us of the existence of a Basque Country, except for the cases I cited above. Later on, in January 1965, the prefect Doueil blurted out to writer and Basque academic Piarres Charritton that «Le Pays Basque, monsieur, çà n’existe pas!».
We have undergone a rough situation, a «fascisme linguistique», during approximately two hundred years, which does not correspond to a democratic state. Forty years ago, the president Mitterrand set about a liberalization period that has got us some allowances from the state, but the Conseil Constitutionnel has recently made very clear in his well-known decision what the limitations of that new outlook are.
Like some other Basque intellectuals of your generation, your political activism is inextricably linked to your linguistic activism. In 1963, you contributed to the foundation of ENBATA, the first Basque nationalist movement in the Northern Basque Country, the same year the Assembly of Baiona laid out the foundations of standard Basque. The link between language and nation has always been apparent for you. Do you think that it holds the same relevance for the present-day Basque nationalist political class as it does for us?
Without Basque, where does the Basque Country stand, where the Basque nation? I always recall the words voiced by singer-songwriter and mayor of Kanbo Mixel Labéguerie in the Congress of Basque Activists in Mitikile: «A Basque without Basque language is tantamount to an ox being a horse!» Is the close bond between language and nation as relevant to the Basque nationalist political class as it is for us?
During the 1960s, Spanish language held a prominent position on the minds of the Basque Nationalist Party chief officials, save for scant exceptions, but thereafter my impression is that Basque has made some progress in their circles thanks to the new generations. Right the opposite, my fear is that a regressive way back may be taking place among Basque left nationalists with a view to gathering momentum by means of effective propaganda aimed at attracting non-Basque speakers towards independence… That reminds me of the bad Irish model. What is the point of having a Basque republic that does not speak Basque? The establishment of A little Spain beside the large Spain? In order to be richer than Rioja or Cantabria? In order to arrange for a tax paradise like Ireland? Is that all we stand for?
In late 19th century, French education inspectors were vexed by the fact that the children in the Northern Basque Country could not speak French. Just the opposite, the number of Basque speakers there presently falls to just 20%. Where did language transmission come to a halt in the Northern Basque Country? Why?
I cannot pinpoint a specific moment for the breach in language transmission; it just came about gradually and inadvertently. As I have just cited, the earliest linguistic cracks on the banks of the rivers of Zuberoa opened during the Second World War, with the countryside nearby remaining Basque. On the coast, French may have taken over in Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz) during that period. Later, in 1958, some young mothers began to shift their position towards instruction of catechism in French. In Ürrüstoi, language transmission ground to a halt in around 1970 among some families. After raising the elder children in Basque, they taught French to the younger ones. How could this happen?
When a tree falls by the sheer push of gentle wind, it reveals that it was feeble inside, withered or rotten, following a long evolution. «Basque, what for? Downstream of Sarrikotapea, Beskoitze, it holds no instrumental value…». Except for some stubborn ones, families would finally give in, knocked down by the harsh wind. What were the last buffetings? Television? Maybe the extension of basic schooling from 14 years-old to 16, taking children from the rural milieu in coaches away to the head towns of cantons? I do know that children from Urdatx/Santa Grazi did speak Basque until Ligi, where they switched to French… Nowadays how many children can speak Basque? Those of Ürrüstoi do, thanks to the ikastola, the Basque-language school.
The latest media have imbued the Northern Basque Country with an urban outlook until its farthest reaches, where urban completely stands for French, except for the homes of Basque activists, thanks to Basque radio and television stations, magazines, Basque schools, etc.
During the 20th century, the Northern Basque Country played host to two major floods of refugees from the Southern Basque Country, with the first one taking place in 1937, when the Spanish fascists occupied the Southern Basque Country. The second one came about in the early 1960s, with the first ETA militants fleeing repression that pushed them to the Northern Basque Country. In what manner did these two floods influence the incipient Basque nationalist movement in the Northern Basque Country?
The new movement Aintzina got silenced in 1936an, since the noise of civil war in the Southern Basque Country and Spain suppressed it in the «white haven » of the North. Later on, the Basque nationalist families settling down on the coast of Lapurdi left a discreet but deep imprint among the Basques in the area, especially when it comes to culture. On the other hand, the PNV officials did not meddle in the situation of the Northern Basque Country, intending to abide by the code of political refugees.
It happened otherwise with ETA. The first leaders respected the autonomy of the Basque nationalists in the Northern Basque Country, but soon after they excited our activists and some of them joined in. However, generally speaking, the trace left by the flow of refugees is apparent in culture, especially in the support of the Basque language, the establishment of the Basque schools, education, etc. They brought along a nice and permanent support to Basque culture-building at all levels and aspects.
On 16 June 2021, the Constitutional Council of France adopted a severe decision directly affecting the education in Basque. According to it, the Basque immersion model in the state-run education network would be banned. Not only that, a decision on its implementation in the Christian school and the network Seaska is still pending, since it is being subject to discussion… What is your view on this issue? What do you think about the faltering position of the Constitutional Council?
The Constitutional Council does not accept any equality between French and «regional languages», French must prevail all over, downgrading or ostracizing the other languages, even if they need to meddle outside their own business, as they have.
I remember forty years ago soon, when the president of France Francois Mitterrand opened up some windows favouring our languages, that a high-ranking French official told me: «Il;ne s’agit pas de faire vivre les langues régionales, mais de les aider à mourir dans la dignité». I regret not having made a note of the reference at that moment; there it goes again as always the sacred «mantra» of the Jacobin Republic. The thing is these languages have not died out, they still manage to breathe, thanks to a stubborn handful of people.
Lately, fresh popular initiatives and movements have risen up in support of the Basque language in the Northern Basque Country, e.g. the movement Azterketak Euskaraz (“Exams in Basque”) made up of teachers, parents and children of the Basque school network Seaska, the special AEK’s Korrika language support race reuniting youth hailing from the ikastolas in Zuberoa (Soule) and Lower Navarre, or the 10,000 Basque-language sympathisers marching through the streets of Bayonne on 29 May 2021 in response to the sentence handed down by the French tribunals against the immersion model; just a week before only 200 people gathered in Bilbao when a Spanish Court issued another sentence against Basque. Do you think the gravitational centre of Basque-language activism may be shifting from the Southern to the Northern Basque Country?
The status of Basque language in the North is substantially worse than in the South, so there are further reasons for protest. However, watch out also in the South, the rights of the Basque-speakers hang in the balance, and our gained rights may easily be stripped from us inadvertently.
When French and Spanish languages did not even exist, a Basque-speaking people existed here. Our nation is old, a rejected nation, divided and subdued, struggling to maintain its identity in a globalized world. Do you think it is possible to guarantee the future of Basque without unravelling the issue of our political subjugation?
Guaranteeing the future of Basque will be an uphill struggle one way or another. However, if we were sovereign, we could benefit from more instruments, less hurdles to overcome. Still there is the appalling Irish model.
So, beware, not all enemies lie outside, the main one right inside, easiness brings about laziness. So more than ever, keep the good work at all levels and aspects, including politics.
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INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY NAZIOGINTZA