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Tour de France chief Jean-Marie Leblanc admitted Friday that organizers of this year’s race had been duped into reaching agreement with Batasuna, the banned political wing of the armed Basque separatist group ETA, to allow the 16th stage between Pau and Bayonne in southwestern France to be conducted bilingually.
The annoucement by Batasuna earlier in the day that they had agreed a deal for the stage to be in both French and Euskara, the language of the Basque people, led to a storm of protest.
“We were conned, tricked,” claimed Leblanc on the eve of the start of the centenary Tour.
“I’ve been told that in the two associations who requested this, one has links with a terrorist and criminal organization. It’s clear that the Tour has no sympathy for a business of this nature.”
Leblanc said that Tour officials were sensitive to various regional traditions and that their contact had been an elected town official in Bayonne.
“I can’t imagine that an elected representative could have links with a criminal organization,” he said. “We acted in good faith and we gave our consent for measures which were already taken in 1996 when the Tour arrived in Hendaye.”
Tour of Spain director Enrique Franco slammed the move as “a serious blunder”.
“It’s incredible that the Tour de France, that Jean-Marie Leblanc should speak or give into pressure from this group,” said Franco, adding that the Tour of Spain no longer passes through the Spanish Basque country because of problems with the separatist group.
A Batasuna spokesperson said that under the agreement an Euskara speaker would act alongside the official French speaker at the arrival of the stage on July 23 in Bayonne.
The Basque Country, comprising 3 million people, straddles the French-Spanish border along the western Pyrenees.
Batasuna was banned by Spain’s national Supreme Court earlier this year under a controversial new law on political parties, and the party placed on the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations on June 6.
Spanish authorities say Batasuna provides members, material and technical assistance to ETA. They also say many members of Batasuna belong to ETA.
The party, which was founded in 1978, has changed its name many times to avoid previous banning attempts.
ETA’s violent 35-year-long campaign for an independent Basque homeland has claimed more than 800 lives.