It didn’t take long after my arrival in Bayonne, France, to realise that this riverside town of meandering medieval alleyways flanked by narrow wooden-framed homes is a different kind of Basque Country.

French Basque Country counts a population of just less than 300,000, compared to more than two million Spanish Basques, with whom they share a language and culture. Besides being dwarfed by their relatives just 40km to the south, here in south-west France, the ikurriña, as the Basque flag is called, is flown noticeably less frequently. Even the ubiquitous jamón, beloved on both sides of the border, takes on a look and taste all its own. Shop names, restaurant menus and road signs are overwhelmingly written in French rather than Euskara (the Basque language), which, unlike in Spain, is not officially recognised in France. I sensed in Bayonne that the ‘Frenchness’ of the place overpowers any Basque patriotism that may lie beneath.

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“Our language is about to disappear here. Everybody speaks French,” lamented Bayonne local Dante Edme-Sanjurjo. “The young people are learning Basque at private and public schools, but the problem is that they don’t use it. There is a reluctance to speaking Basque when addressing someone we don't know; it is a private language that they don’t share in public.”

Inspired to bring Basque pride back to the region, in 2013 Edme-Sanjurjo and about a dozen volunteers launched a euro-equivalent micro-currency. Their aim was to reinvigorate enthusiasm for their cultural and linguistic roots and keep money within the French-Basque region by supporting local businesses. Flash forward to October 2018, and their micro-currency, coined the eusko (pronounced ‘you-s-ko’), reached the equivalent of €1 million in circulation, making it the most successful of such monetary experiments in Europe, according to The Local.

Today, 17 municipal governments and 820 local shops, businesses and associations in the French Basque Country accept the eusko as legal tender. Euskal Moneta – the organisation headed by Edme-Sanjurjo that manages and prints the currency – says two to three new eusko accounts are being opened daily with them.

Participating businesses are encouraged to make their shops bilingual. “We encourage business owners to learn a few greeting words in Basque and/or have as many Basque-language signs in the shop as possible, and we provide the translation for free thanks to public subsidies,” Edme-Sanjurjo said. “This allows young people to see Basque in public life and not be ashamed anymore.”

While the idea of printing your own money might seem radical, the concept of micro-currencies is far from novel. Indeed, Euskal Moneta was inspired by the Chiemgauer, a micro-currency that has been available in Chiemgau region in Upper Bavaria, Germany, since 2003. Today, there are as many as 10,000 to 15,000 micro-currencies operating worldwide, including about 60 in France, which legalised them in 2014.

Most of the local currencies active in Europe are available only on a very small scale – so small that even some locals might not know they exist. For example, there is the Brixton pound in South London and the recently launched Parisian pêche (peach). Spanish Basque Country also has several local currencies in operation, such as the ekhi, but nothing sizeable enough to rival the eusko has emerged yet.

This allows young people to see Basque in public life and not be ashamed anymore

What seems to set the eusko apart is its adaptability. When eusko online accounts were launched in 2017 – making it the first French local currency to offer both digital and physical notes, according to Edme-Sanjurjo – the pace of adoption accelerated. Today, 60,000 eusko are now being exchanged from euro each month, according to Euskal Moneta, which has garnered attention from other European communities hoping to replicate the French Basque’s micro-currency success.

“The Institute of the Circular Economy of Wales is preparing a report for the Welsh Government. The Belgian federation of alternative finance, which supports more than 20 Belgian local currencies, is also in contact with Euskal Moneta. And we are regularly contacted about local currency projects from throughout Spain,” Jean-René Etchegaray, mayor of Bayonne and president of the Basque Municipal Community, told me.

But establishing a new micro-currency is far from easy to pull off, and, as Edme-Sanjurjo explained, it can take a lot of work to persuade a sceptical public.  

“At first it [introducing the eusko] was quite difficult,” Edme-Sanjurjo recalled. “Nobody knew about local currencies. They said, ‘Hey, you want me to take another currency? Thanks to the euro, we ended with the franc and the peseta, and now you want to change again?’ It was strange and not very welcome at first sight.”

But the eusko hit critical mass quickly, achieving a relatively large circulation in the small-size world of micro-currencies. “Within the first six months of its launch, the eusko became the most developed local currency in France,” Edme-Sanjurjo recalled.

Although the majority of shop signs are still in French, visitors arriving in Bayonne may also see green signs in French and Euskara: ‘We accept eusko here’. I learned that there are two ways to obtain eusko. First, you can open an account with Euskal Moneta, paying a minimum annual €12 fee and choosing a local association to support, such as a business, the Basque language school or a kids’ football club. Then, whenever the new member exchanges euro for eusko, the selected association gets a 3% bonus of the amount exchanged, what Edme-Sanjurjo calls a “collective benefit”. 

I chose to exchange my euro for eusko at the Bayonne Office of Tourism in Grand Bayonne (travellers can also do this at a number of other sites) for a €2 fee. The notes were handed over with a list of participating stores and a small Basque dictionary. 

Handling the eusko gave rise to that old and unfortunate ‘Monopoly money’ metaphor. It was the only time I’ve seen a dot-org website address on a banknote, and the notes felt more like paper than any other currency I’ve handled. This doesn’t mean the eusko isn’t authentic, however. There are several security features, including fluorescent orange ink, a metal strip and, like government-printed currencies, a measure that is kept secret from the public to further thwart forgery.

That’s because securing the money will protect its value as an alternative economic asset, as well as the benefits that it provides the community. At Poloko Hiriondo Ikastola, Bayonne’s immersive Euskara school, 19 out of 58 families now pay their dues with eusko. For a small school of 82 children, the impact is real: benefits from the eusko program amount to €1,000 a year, which is put towards buying books, stationery and healthier meals for students.

“The eusko is an important tool to support culture,” headmaster Maia Duhalde told me. “It encourages society to learn Euskara outside of schools. This better visibility of Euskara thus encourages everyone to learn it, or for those who already know it, to practice it more.”

The eusko is an important tool to support culture

As happens with other local currencies, Euskal Moneta has programmed the system to encourage holding on to or spending euskos – the eusko can be traded back to euro at a 5% fee, which incentivises holders to keep money in the local economy.

“About 84% of businesses have never changed eusko [back] to euro. They always find a way to use them with other local eusko businesses,” Edme-Sanjurjo told me, sitting next to the River Nive on a cloudless Bayonne day. “In France and in the Basque Country, we believe in ‘vivre et travailler au pays’ – the right to live and work where you are born. In our area, there are no factories or large universities, so we have to develop activities for people so that they don’t have to leave to work somewhere else,” he said, his thick, black eyebrows sinking in exasperation as his spoke.

All the eusko-accepting shop owners in Bayonne who I spoke to said that their primary reason for adopting the eusko was the financial benefits it provides. I sat around a low ceramic table on a commercial street on the newer side of Bayonne across the River Adour, a rushing waterway that empties out into the Atlantic, with Christelle Ksouri Perez, owner of L’Ambre Bleu, a shop filled with decorative art pieces. She began accepting the eusko just 15 days before we met, saying that she did so to “support local merchants and for the redistribution of the local market”.

Sitting across from her, Serge Lamiscarre, the owner of vintage shop Intramuros Bayonne, said he joined the eusko a year ago to “exit the capitalist system and offer something different”.

“It creates a community and new links between people,” he added.

I couldn’t leave without better understanding their feelings about separatism, always the elephant in the room in Basque Country. “Do either of you want to achieve an independent Basque state?” I asked.

Just then, as if on cue, rifle fire thundered out from a hillside behind us. It was coming from a National French Army base, doubtless a group of soldiers practicing at a firing range.

Everyone laughed nervously. “I do not support independence,” Ksouri Perez eked out a response. “I am not ready for it now,” Lamiscarre added.

It creates a community and new links between people

Sitting across from Lamiscarre and Ksouri Perez, I realised that, despite the changes the eusko has brought, life here is still overwhelmingly French and much more would need to be done to revive any lingering Basque spirit that may lie beneath.

“We are starting to hear more Euskara in the everyday life, but it's far from enough,” Edme-Sanjurjo later told me. “We have to make people proud of speaking Basque, and motivate newcomers to learn and have it taught to their children. That’s the way they do it in Catalunya. It will take a few decades, but we will work hard to do it.”

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