Cross-border connections between militant circles along the Basque coast during the “Belle Epoque”. Attempts to implement a “circumscribed” internationalism.

The geographical area here examined, which we will call the “Basque coast”, was not a homogenous space either in terms of its industrialisation or the implantation of the workers’ movement. Indeed, from Bayonne to Bilbao, via San Sebastián and Eibar, the pace of industrialisation followed highly varied rhythms.[1] It is in Biscay that we find the greatest concentrations of workers, with powerful mining and steel sectors that brought together especially large numbers. However, in the Basses-Pyrénées and Guipuzcoa to the south, workshops and small businesses were still clearly predominant, scattered across the territory. Home-based work was also important, particularly in the textile industry.

Similarly, the workers’ movement developed in different ways and in “staggered” fashion across the provinces under examination. To simplify matters somewhat, we can say that this movement remained relatively focused on the main coastal cities (Bayonne, Bilbao, San Sebastián). The beacon of the working-class world in the Basses-Pyrénées was the Bayonne Bourse du travail, founded in 1903. The overall structure of this movement was mainly provided by the workers’ organisations and the CGT. On the Spanish side of the border, it was socialist groups who coordinated the workers’ movement through the sociedades de oficio.[2] The UGT only gained real implantation in Bilbao from the 1910s onwards.[3] In San Sebastián, there was a Centro Obrero which federated together the sociedades de oficio. However, in Guipuzcoa, these socialist groups were not well rooted and they faced competition from more conservative unions, particularly the Catholic unions.[4]

            Despite these differences and the structural weaknesses of the social movement on both sides of the border (which remained very immature in many respects before 1914), it is remarkable to trace the connections that did exist between workers’ organisations and socialist groups. Even if their relations remained occasional, ephemeral and even symbolic, militant circles did communicate and coordinate — notwithstanding the fact they were sometimes the bearers of different ideologies and indeed embedded in opposed processes of national construction.

            In order to understand the origin of these links, we should also mention the role of migration. The coastal section of the western border between France and Spain offered easy access, allowing for easy communication. It was especially from the final third of the nineteenth century that south-north migratory flows became more noticeable, while also changing in character.[5] At that time, cross-border movements mainly reflected economic concerns. Those who came to work in the coastal part of the Basses-Pyrenees département came mainly from Guipuzcoa and to a lesser extent from Navarre and Vizcaya.[6] Without wishing to pin too much on the very imprecise figures available to us, it is worth noting that the number of foreign workers said to have settled in the Basses-Pyrénées (officially resident in the département) represented around 5 percent of the total population.[7] Even this does not take into account the floating population, whose number was so great as to prompt the secretary of the Bayonne Bourse du Travail to comment in 1911 that “… our region is teeming with Spaniards working at low prices”.[8]

The sheer numerical size of this foreign presence inevitably had an impact on the “world of labour” which was then in the making, and especially so in a département so affected by cross-Atlantic emigration.[9] Even if the discourse of political or trade union-leaders was sometimes ambivalent towards this foreign workforce, a certain pragmatism required that they should not ignore the masses of Spanish workers who participated in the emerging social movement.[10] In other words, the coexistence of workers of different nationalities at least partly conditioned the cross-border relations between militant circles. The short distances concerned (only about 50 kilometres separates San Sebastián from Bayonne) as well as new means of transport also fostered physical connections — for, as we shall see, militants travelled.

The first apparent factor for exchanges and mobility were strikes. Indeed, these events created contacts between the workers’ organisations along the Basque Coast, who communicated by way of the workers themselves.  But what truly tells us about the links between socialist groups on both sides of the border is the Spanish community’s political involvement.


  1. Strikes and mixing among striking workers — a factor for exchange and mobility


In the period that concerns us, here, two strikes were especially significant for establishing contacts between workers’ organisations on either side of the border. These contacts most certainly took place by way of striking workers; we have no evidence of correspondence between these different organisations, and unfortunately, the sources remain very incomplete.

First was the plasterers’ strike in Biarritz in 1906, supported by the city’s Union des syndicats. The union leaders engaged in intensive activism, organising several solidarity rallies. The first large meeting was meant to be visible and noisy, and organisers sought the presence of all the union representatives. Several local guilds offered the striking plasterers their support.[11] It was at this point that the representative of the San Sebastián Centro obrero, who had come to support the strikers’ cause, “express[ed] the desire of the Spanish workers to see this fine movement crowned with success”.[12] For the first time, workers’ organisations on both sides of the border coordinated and affirmed their unanimous support for the strikers. In fact, the trade associations in the building trades also included many Spanish workers in their ranks.

The other strike was the one mounted by the Behobia cabinetmakers in 1908. The Établissements de la Bidassoa, a large furniture factory, employed around 300 workers at two sites on either side of the river marking the border, most of them Spanish.[13] In the French part of the factory, these were cross-border workers, who travelled across the border every day to come to work. They lived in Irun or Behobia and enjoyed easy passage thanks to the passports issued by the consulate in San Sebastián.[14] This strike, which was small in scale, began in the factory on the Spanish side, where 25 cabinetmakers accompanied by their apprentices went on strike against an announced 10 percent cut in their piecework wages. In solidarity, 29 workers on the French side stopped work for a week to join their comrades in the Spanish factory. Meetings and demonstrations took place in the Spanish factory, albeit without spilling over onto the French side. On the day that the strike began, a workers’ delegation came to ask for the support of the Bayonne Bourse du travail.[15] Two of its leaders went there to evaluate the situation and discuss with the foremen. We can imagine that another group of workers made a similar approach to the Centro obrero in San Sebastián, since this latter then organised a meeting in Irun in which the Bayonne Bourse du travail was invited to participate.[16] The Bourse du travail’s involvement seems to have been rather timid;[17] but it remains the case that this body had again engaged in a conflict which involved a mostly Spanish group of workers.


  1. The Spanish community’s involvement in local socialist groups

The Spanish workers, and the Spanish community more broadly, seem to have been more aligned to the socialist movement than to trade unionism, even if this dividing line was sometimes rather blurred. Police sources frequently mention a large Spanish contingent at the meetings organised by the socialists.[18] In Biarritz, the Spaniards were closely linked to the local socialist party. They even formed a section called “Los Expatriados”[19] which constituted a sort of intermediary with socialist groups in Guipuzcoa by offering a material base to militants.

This was particularly visible during the organisation of the 1 May events, at a time when these latter were not well attended in the département[20]. It was really the rallying of Biarritz and Bayonne socialist groups together with trade union forces, upon the celebration of 1 May 1910, that helped to give the day a more dynamic character.

            In 1913, the socialist group in Biarritz organised the 1 May events in the form of a joint Franco-Spanish rally. Juan Argote, a working bricklayer who was presented as a delegate from the San Sebastian socialist group, was also a member of Los Expatriados. He gave a virulent anti-militarist speech, heartily applauded “by his compatriots”.[21] He was seen as a “very exalted” anarchist, actively participating in rallies on either side of the border. Here we see a concrete case of a worker in the building trades — an anarchist militant wanted by the Spanish police for his violent comments against the government during a demonstration in San Sebastián[22] — who himself provided the link between two cross-border organisations.

From summer 1913 onwards, but especially in spring 1914, in a pre-war atmosphere, there was a much more visible presence of Spanish speakers at meetings and rallies organised by socialist groups and the Union des syndicats des Basses-Pyrénées. There may be a certain bias at work here, linked to the quality of the sources at that time.[23] Most of these speakers were not known to the police, but some are mentioned by name, such as Emiliano Gonzales, secretary of the Federación de las sociedades obreras de Bilbao, who made a speech in Bayonne on 1 May 1914. It should be noted that this Federation was of socialist persuasion. It is thus highly likely that this invitation came through local political networks.



We know little about Franco-Spanish relations between militants along the Basque coast. At least judging by the sources we have, these connections remained marginal. The trade unions, for example, did not develop closer relations with their partners further to the south, but it is also likely that they did not have the human and material means to do so. Indeed, in this case we are still far from certain projects to harmonise unionisation rules on either side of the border — as could be observed, for instance, in the northern French coalmines.[24]  Unfortunately, we only have evidence of physical links, via militants’ own movements. But it is almost certain that there was correspondence via networks of which we lack sufficient knowledge. The Biarritz socialist group was a singular case in point, concretely showing the connections that could exist with strong ties of solidarity.



Emmanuel Plat: associate researcher at the ITEM laboratory, Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour. ED 481


[1] For a first approach to the topic of industrialization in the Spanish Basque Country, the reader can consult Luis Castells Arteche, “Los trabajadores en el País Vasco (1880-1914)”, Historia contemporánea, no. 3, 1990, pp. 59-74; for the Basses-Pyrénées: PierreMmachot, Pyrénées-Atlantiques: les activités industrielles au cours de la seconde moitié du XIX ͤ siècle, Pau, TER Histoire, 1978

[2] Associations which initially brought together artisans and then evolved into resistance societies made up of waged workers.

[3] Henrike Fesefeldt, “Del mundo de los oficios a la lucha de intereses: la UGT 1888-1923”, Ayer, no. 54, 2004, pp. 71-96.

[4] Luis Castells Arteche, Una aproximación al conflicto social en Guipúzcoa 1890-1923”, Estudios de historia social, nos. 32-33, 1985, pp. 261-315.

[5] Unfortunately, it is very difficult to offer any precise estimate of the scale of these migratory movements, but we will see later on how important they could be in certain fields of activity.

[6] Nathalie Lembeye, L’immigration espagnole à Saint-Jean-de-Luz au XIX ͤ siècle, history master’s thesis, UPPA, 1992, p. 39.

[7] INSEE, Population par commune de 1876 à 1954, département des Basses-Pyrénées, Bordeaux, INSEE, 1959.

[8] Arch. Mun. Bayonne: 7F3, report on the activities of the Bayonne Bourse du travail in 1911.

[9] Without going further into the historiographical debates on this subject, it appears that the vast majority of emigrants were of rural origin. This was connected to overpopulation and the mode of transmission of property, which continued to operate in highly unequal fashion despite the abolition of the droit d’aînesse [i.e. conferring the inheritance only on the oldest son]. We can estimate departures to foreign countries from the Basses-Pyrénées département at an average of 88 people per year for 1821-1845, 1,776 for the period 1846-1880, 1,493 for the period from 1881 to 1910 and 1,910 for the decade 1911-1921. See Serge Lerat, Les pays de l’Adour: structures agraires et économie agricole, Bordeaux, Union française d’impression, 1963.

[10] Arch. Mun. Bayonne : 7F3, letter from the secretary of the Bayonne Bourse du travail, addressed to the town’s mayor, 11 December 1911.

[11] L’Action Syndicale (Per.) June 1906.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Arch. Dép. 64 : 10M18.

[14] Ministère de la Guerre, section économique de la 18 ͤ région, Enquête sur la reprise et le développement de la vie industrielle dans la région pyrénéenne (Hautes et Basses-Pyrénées), Bordeaux, Delmas éd., 1918, p. 245.

[15] L’action Syndicale (Per.) February 1909.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Especially when compared to the importance of the means deployed by the Bourse, in terms of support and influence, during the strike of the Bayonne cabinetmakers at the end of 1907.

[18] Arch. Dép. 64 : 10M30, 10M33, 10M59.

[19] Arch. Dép. 64: 10M12, report by the Bayonne central police commissioner, May 1, 1913; Unfortunately, we do not know much about the “Los Expatriados” group.

[20] The first reference to 1 May dates from 1906 in Pau. However, the unionised building workers who gathered at the city’s Bourse du travail decided not to launch a general strike, in order to avoid undermining the Republican electoral candidates. Some workers walked off the job in Orthez in 1911. But only from 1912 did structured events take form in the working-class and political circles along the Basque coast  Arch. Dép. 64 : 3Z154

[21] Arch. Dép. 64: 10M12, report by the Hendaye special police commissioner, 1 May 1913. 

[22] Ibid.

[23] Arch. Dép. 64: 10M12, report by the Bayonne central police commissioner, 30 April 1914. As of 1915, this workers’ association created in 1901 brought together around 3,200 workers from all trades. Source: Ramon Arnabat Mata, Asociaos y seréis fuertes. Sociabilidades, modernizaciones y ciudadanías en España, 1860-1930, Zaragoza, 2019, p.183.

[24] Bastien Cabot, “Travail immigré, mouvement ouvrier et socialisme (1880-1920), internationalisme et géopolitique syndicale des migrations”, Les Cahiers d’Histoire immédiate, UPPA, no. 55, pp. 41-52.

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