JEAN-CLAUDE Agerre was nervous. His brother Didier (26) was arrested six months ago and accused of belonging to ETA, the Basque separatist terrorist group.
He is an activist for ETA's political wing, Batasuna, and now the French police are watching him. No tail could be spotted as he sat with his back to the wall in a corner of a cafe in Hasparran, a small town in the foothills of the French Basque country; but his disquiet was obvious.
"The French police are much more intelligent than the Spanish police," said Jean-Claude (28). "They work like foxes. They know what to do and when to do it. They look after their side of the border enough to keep order and satisfy the Spanish. They don't want a political problem."
France has traditionally been ETA's sanctuary. Its leadership lives there and its personnel train among the mountains and plan attacks in isolated farmhouses of the French Pays Basque. In the past, Spain complained that France turned a blind eye to ETA members living on French soil, for fear of alienating French Basque voters and bringing ETA's violence across the border.
Spanish politicians have often contended that if the political will existed in France, ETA - which has killed more than 800 people in its 30-year campaign for an independent Basque homeland - would be finished in a matter of months.
Now, in response to Spanish pressure and amid the global war on terrorism, France has revolutionised its campaign against the terrorist. A 25-strong anti-terrorist police unit has been formed in Bayonne specifically to target ETA and a joint Spanish-French police headquarters is planned.
In the past four months 25 ETA suspects have been arrested in France, several leading ETA members extradited to Spain, and an arms workshop and dynamite dump discovered. Terrorist experts believe the new co-operation has already greatly debilitated ETA's operational capability. But few analysts believe the purge will destroy ETA, and Basque nationalists insist the group will react.
Agerre, whose brother was arrested over the ETA theft of dynamite from a warehouse near Grenoble, said: "France is now taking a very dangerous course by clamping down on ETA. The French government has always said that ETA is a Spanish problem but one day the struggle will come here, too."
(Daily Telegraph, London)