FRENCH Druids are to ask for British citizenship to escape the "oppression" to which they are subjected in their own country.
The Druids, from Brittany, say they are victimised by a centralised state apparatus that refuses to recognise their Celtic origins.
As self-proclaimed standard bearers for the Breton language and culture, they have written to President Chirac accusing him of discrimination. They want British nationality in order to join forces with Welsh and Cornish Celts, with whom they share 2,500 years of history.
The Grand Druid of France, Gwench'lan Le Scouezec, told M Chirac in an open letter: "We are led to consider ourselves, from now on, as being excluded from the French nationality and as stateless people.
"We are free to ask our Welsh friends to intervene before the Welsh Assembly, which Prince Charles recently addressed in Welsh, so that we may receive British and Welsh nationality."
The letter followed M Chirac's refusal to allow a small constitutional change enabling France to sign a European charter for regional languages. This caused anger in many French provinces, but especially Brittany, where 93 per cent of local people told a recent opinion poll they were proud of their Celtic roots.
To the Druids, M Chirac's move signalled "the transformation of the French Republic into an instrument of oppression". They say that, despite their uncontested claim to be descended from early French tribes represented by the cartoon character, Asterix the Gaul, they enjoy none of the autonomy given to their Celtic cousins in Britain.
While London has devolved power to Wales and Scotland, Paris continues to block official recognition of the Breton language, the Druids say.
Salt was rubbed into the wound last weekend when about 200 French Druids met delegations from Wales and Cornwall in a Brittany forest glen. Dressed in white, blue and green tunics, with flowing hair and beards, they stood inside a circle of stones and chanted a welcome to new Druids.
The common origin of the Celtic peoples on both sides of the Channel was highlighted by a ritual that is meant to symbolise the retrieval of the sword of King Arthur - who is as important in Brittany as in Cornwall. The gathering, known as a gorsedd, was dedicated to the protection of a Celtic heritage and identity that Druids say are under attack on the French side of the Channel.
The French Druids number no more than a few hundred, but they include philosophers, teachers and the popular Breton singer, Gilles Servat, giving them an influential voice.
In Brittany, they are one of many organisations which are tapping into a growing demand for greater autonomy. Although the language, Brezhoneg, is spoken by no more than 120,000 people, Breton festivals, which are known as fest-noz, attract tens of thousands of people in what is a clear sign of renewed interest in regional identity. The Celtic festival in Lorient, southern Brittany, next month is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of local people and tourists.
There is also a more sinister side to Breton nationalism. This year has seen the emergence of a small terrorist organisation, the Breton Revolutionary Army (ARB). Last month, the ARB attracted widespread attention when it placed a bomb outside party headquarters of Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, in the village of Cintegabelle, near Toulouse. Thirteen houses and six shops were damaged, although nobody was hurt.
French police say they have been tipped off about a plan to plant a similar device in M Chirac's constituency. Cross-Channel culture
Professor Geraint Jenkins, director of the centre for advanced Celtic studies at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, said Celtic history was "a minefield" but that the Celts were one of the most important influences in the early history of Europe. "Some historians believe that they came from a prehistoric tribe which may have originated in what is now Germany. They are thought to have reached Britain in the Bronze Age and swarmed over France in about 500BC. Successive attacks mainly by Roman legions confined them to Britain and Brittany. Their language on both sides of the Channel is similar, as are the music and culture."
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