Biarritz France – An Unlikely Place For Xenophobia

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An old man, distinguished in his own land, decides to acquire a second home abroad. He chooses a very attractive area in the foothills of a famous mountain range. There he buys a very old and dilapidated home attached to what was once a water mill. He lovingly restores the home and even has the water mill working again. The locals don’t like this. They fear that such activity by wealthy foreigners drives up property values and prices them out of the housing market. The very presence of this old man in the area is seen as an attack on their language and cultural identity. So they burn the mill to the ground. On the ruins, they paint the words “ This country is not for sale“. This outrage was not an isolated instance. Other foreign owned properties nearby are being similarly destroyed.

Now the question is this. Where in the world did this happen? Which region is peopled by xenophobic animals who behave like this. Perhaps the Taliban in Afghanistan? Or maybe some backward tribe in West Africa? I would never have guessed the true answer. It is happening in Lower Navarre, which is the Basque country of south western France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It is happening just a few miles inland from the stylish and sophisticated city of Biarritz, which stands on the Bay of Biscay about 11 miles north of the Spanish border. About 40 years ago, when I was driving from England to Portugal, I approached Biarritz with great anticipation. I knew that for centuries the ocean waters at Biarritz were believed to have healing powers. For this reason, European royalty loved to stay there. The Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, even built a palace on the beach. Biarritz was a great favorite with Queen Victoria and her son, later to be King Edward VII. Biarritz even opened a casino for him in 1901, which I notice is shortly after his very strict mother had died. Biarritz did not disappoint me. Its buildings have an ageless charm. The casino was still open and, as my own very strict mother was not with me, I paid it a visit. There were Basque flags everywhere in Biarritz. I even heard the Basque language being spoken. It’s quite different from French and Spanish.

Even so, I don’t think that I understood all those years ago just how the Basques feel about the rest of the world. The Basque country straddles the French/Spanish border at the western end of the Pyrenees. Most Basques live on the Spanish side of the border, but both French and Spanish Basques are fiercely protective of their culture. Yet how can the people who created the lovely city of Biarritz behave like savages? The old man, to whom I refer above, is Sir John Drinkwater QC formerly director of The British Airports Authority. They burned down his mill last month. Isn’t it sad? Bob