The Northern Basque Country (Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule) is the part of the Basque Country under French domination; It represents 15% of the surface of the entire Basque Country (Euskal Herria), and 10% of its population (300,000 inhabitants). 25% of its inhabitants speak the Basque language, but the language has no official status, since the only official language in all of France is French. It maintains cultural and political relations with the Southern Basque Country.


    In order to access the university, the students of the Northern Basque Country must pass an exam at the end of the Liceo stage: the Baccalauréat. This is an exam similar to Southern Basque Country’s Selectivity but with an important difference: they cannot do it entirely through Basque.

    The struggle of the students of Northern Euskal Herria to sit their Bachelors through the Basque language is long-standing. Thanks to that fight, the Jacobin French state had to give in – partially — and admit the right to take the exam “in the students’ own language” in two subjects: Geography and History, and Mathematics. A bittersweet victory, because the Basque students, of course, wanted to take the entire exam through Basque, the same as do the students in Southern Euskal Herria.

    When assessing whether what the Northern Basque students have achieved is little or a lot, external references must be taken into account: there is no doubt that if compared with the Basque Autonomous Community or with Navarra it is little, but if we direct the focus on France it is a great victory, as the students of the Northern Basque Country are the only ones in the entire French state who can take (in two subjects) the Baccalauréat exam in the native language of their country (the Bretons, Catalans, Occitans, Corsicans or Alsatians do not have that option).

    This exceptional situation (it is really curious that a small territory of 300,000 inhabitants – the North of Euskal Herria – has partially won that battle against the powerful Jacobin system of French education) is explained by the strength of the ikastolas movement of the Northern Basque Country. The ikastolas were the first schools that applied the language immersion system in a language other than French: the first one was created in 1969, now 50 years ago. After them, the “Calandretas” of Occitania, the “Bressolas” of Northern Catalonia, and the “Diwan” of Brittany were created, all of them inspired by the Basque ikastola model. On the other hand, the strength of the ikastolas is beyond comparison with that of the other “native” schools: in the small area of ​​Northern Euskal Herria (2,967 km2 and 300,000 inhabitants) there are 31 ikastolas of primary education, four of secondary education and one high school (higher education), with a total of 4,070 students. The native schools of Brittany, Northern Catalonia or Occitania (which teach in Breton, Catalan or Occitan) do not approach those figures. It should also be remembered that in Corsica or Alsace there are no schools that apply the native language immersion system — only a few bilingual schools.

    Two more comparisons illustrate the great difference between the ikastolas and the rest of the native schools in France: the “Calandretas” of Occitania teach 0.2% of the students of Occitania in primary education; the “Bressolas” of Northern Catalonia, 2% of the students; the “Diwan” of Brittany, 1%. The ikastolas, however, teach 13% of primary school students in the Northern Basque Country.

    Regarding the pre-university stage (at the Lyceum), the ikastolas include 4% of the total student body. The “Diwan” of Brittany, meanwhile, is at 0.2%. In Occitania and in Northern Catalonia there is no Lyceum that teaches in the native language.

    In view of these data, it is not surprising that in the French state the most powerful claim to pursue Baccalauréat in the native language comes from the Northern Basque Country.

    The students of the Basque Lyceum (Bernat Etxepare) who have to do the Baccalauréat organize demonstrations and rallies every year to demand the right to take the exam through Basque in all subjects, and not only in two. They focus on the Baxoa euskaraz! (Baccalauréat through Basque!) platform. Two years ago, 15 students from Brittany – who have fewer linguistic rights than the Basques – performed an act of linguistic disobedience and wrote the answers to their Mathematics exam in the Breton language. NAZIOGINTZA has asked the Director of the only Lyceum of the Northern Basque ikastolas, Iban Thikoipe, if that path could be effective in pressing the French State in this matter. “Students who write the answers to the entire exam in the Basque language should be aware that they take a great risk, the risk that their exam will not be corrected and that they will be unable to enter the university,” he tells us. “We, like Liceo, cannot tell students to take that risk. If someone decides to do it, however, they will have all our support

    The Baccalauréat will undergo a great change in two years’ time (in 2021), which will alter its current structure,” adds Thikoipe. The Baccalauréat until now consisted of a single exam, which had to be passed to enter the university. However, in two years’ time that exam will represent 60% of the grade; the other 40% will be composed of the exams to be carried out at the Liceo itself. The Director of the Basque Lyceum expects that 40% will be composed of exams in the Basque language. If so, the weight of Basque in the Baccalauréat would increase significantly.

    Basque students at the Liceo also expect that this reform will increase the number of exams that can be taken in the Basque language. Some of them have told NAZIOGINTZA that in future they would review their linguistic claims, taking into account the new situation. Therefore, the short-term objective will be to ensure that the Lyceum has more and more powers, so that they can take the exams right there. Through the Basque language, naturally.

    The students from the ikastolas know that their struggle to get the Baccalauréat in Basque will be long and hard. Because the French State is the most centralist in Western Europe, and the Jacobin tradition is deeply rooted in France. Its Education Minister recently restated that “the main language of French public schools must be French.” Northern Euskal Herria, however, is also the exception: it is the only territory in the entire state where there are four public schools that apply the native language immersion system. It is therefore in a better situation to continue opening cracks in the rigid centralist structure of the French State.



    The ikastolas are not public schools, but neither are they private. They are cooperatives of parents which appeared in the Southern Basque Country early in the twentieth century (in 1915 in Donostia-San Sebastian), which were later banned and reappeared more strongly in the 1950s, when Franco’s dictatorship vindictively persecuted the Basque language and culture. Some parents, eager for their children to be educated through the Basque language, created them in secret. Today the ikastolas are Basque schools managed directly by their parents and teachers. Regarding their legal structure, the ikastolas are a good example of the Basque cooperative movement, so entrenched in Euskal Herria. The ikastola system passed from the South to the North of the Basque Country at the end of the 1960s. Today, in the whole of Euskal Herria there are 111 ikastolas, which teach 57.322 students.