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Spain, France Differ in Treatment of Basque Batasuna Political Party - 2003-05-12

The Basque Batasuna Party is banned in Spain for its alleged terrorist connections. Last week, it was added to a U.S. list of terrorist organizations. But Batasuna remains legal, and active, in France.

The French arm of the Basque Batasuna party is alive and well in the Basque city of Bayonne. Not only does the party have its local headquarters in the city in southwest France, but two Batasuna sympathizers apparently hold seats on the city council.

The Batasuna Party describes itself as an independence movement, fighting for a Basque homeland in southwestern France and northern Spain.

But as far as the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is concerned, Batasuna is the political arm of the ETA terrorist group. ETA is blamed for the deaths of more than 800 people during its three-decade war for a Basque homeland.

Spain recently outlawed Batasuna. Spanish courts have barred hundreds of the group's candidates from running in municipal elections. And during Mr. Aznar's visit to Washington last week, the Bush administration added the party to a list of groups that may be sanctioned for supporting a terrorist organization.

Batasuna faces no such sanctions in France. Yves Ugalde, Cabinet director at the Bayonne town hall, says Batasuna is one of four Basque parties operating legally in the Basque region of France.

Mr. Ugalde said two of the Basque parties are legal in Spain. The other two, Batasuna and a spinoff, are not. Local heads of all four parties come from Spain. The parties stage independence demonstrations in Bayonne, he said, but so far have not been blamed for any violent acts.

Leaders of the Batasuna Party in Bayonne did not answer calls Monday. But Joseba Alvarez, a former member of the Batasuna Party in Spain said it was no different than any other political party.

Mr. Alvarez, a Basque parliamentarian from San Sebastian, Spain, denies Batasuna is linked to terrorism. In France, he said, the party is working on social issues like teaching the Basque language in schools, along with political ones.

A French interior ministry spokesman said neither the United States nor the Spanish government has asked France to list the Batasuna Party as linked to terrorism, although the European Union has apparently received such a request. Nor has the Spanish government asked France to ban the French wing of the Batasuna party.

Cooperation between Basque nationalist movements in France and Spain has grown in recent years. But French movements are far smaller than their Spanish counterparts and receive a tiny fraction of popular support.

Meanwhile, counter-terrorism cooperation between French and Spanish authorities is growing. French police, for example, arrested six alleged ETA members in southern France on Friday and Saturday and were thanked by the Spanish government for their efforts.