Switzerland’s multifaceted identity

10 Mins read

This is it not another article on the worrying trends in politics around Europe this past decade, nor is it an autobiographical feature recounting what growing up in Switzerland is like.

This is a piece trying to understand where Swiss people have come from and why it matters – or not.

So firstly, what is Switzerland?

Switzerland is 725 years old, and its image for anyone unfamiliar with the country can be very stereotypical, and sometimes far from the truth; it is, however, an intriguing country, often even for the inhabitants themselves, and for many reasons.

For example, apart from the false depiction of all Swiss people living in chalets with pet cows in the middle of the Alps wearing a traditional costume, something that many visitors focus on is the fact that Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world.

While being a true statement, it seems that in a lot of people’s minds, living in Switzerland looks like being the heir of an extremely wealthy business tycoon, spending your life sipping cocktails sat on a long chair on the balcony of your huge house overlooking the lake and the Alps – a very seldom accurate representation of life in Helvetia.

[pullquote align=”right”]Switzerland numbers 26 cantons (the equivalent of UK counties) and its eight million population speaks four different languages.[/pullquote]Geographically speaking, it is located in the very centre of Europe, although we often hear things like: “but Switzerland is not officially in Europe” given its position in relation to the European Union; not a part of it, while still maintaining important relations with it so as not to be completely isolated.

Despite being very small in terms of area, Switzerland contains 26 cantons (the equivalent of UK counties) and its eight million population speaks four different languages: German (63.5 per cent), French (22.5 per cent), Italian (8.1 per cent) and Romansh (0.5 per cent), a language that remains a complete mystery for anyone that is not a mountain dweller of the Grisons canton.

Other singular facts include Switzerland’s army; national service is compulsory for every man despite the country being neutral and not having taken part in a war in 170 years – if deemed unfit for service, young men have to choose between doing community service or paying military tax.

All men who choose to do national service are then entitled to keep their guns at home, giving Switzerland the third highest level of gun ownership in the world (behind Yemen and the USA), with 45.7 weapons per 100 inhabitants – nearly half the population owns one.

And let’s not forget the fact that women have only been allowed to vote since 1971, after men decided so in a referendum – way later than countries such as Azerbaijan (1918), Turkey (1934), Lebanon (1952) and even Pakistan (1954).

None of these facts have ever sounded strange to me, but whenever I try to explain this to someone who is not familiar with the country, I am greeted with confusion.

Switzerland is confusing, and its identity is different from that of any other country; it seems there is no “nation” so to speak, no single communal identity each individual shares with the rest.

I had a closer look at my own life and that of those around me to try and explain this. 

“Le Jet d’Eau” on Lake Geneva, the city’s main landmark

I was born in Geneva to a mother from Quebec and a half-Swedish, half-Peruvian father.

When I was a child, I used to tell every kid who’d mistakenly think my hard-to-read surname from Sweden was Swiss-German that I was not Swiss.

It wasn’t until I moved out of the country that I started to recognise my ‘Swissness’, mainly due to cultural differences and ways of thinking.

Before then, at most, I felt Genevan.

Like London, besides being a major city, Geneva is also a canton. It is actually made up of 13 cities in total, but no local has ever considered them as such, merely as neighbourhoods.

The canton’s only link to the rest of Switzerland is a 4.5 km strip of land; more than 95 per cent of its borders are shared with France, which is probably why the rest of the country likes to call us ‘the French from the other end of the lake’ or ‘the Parisians of Switzerland’.

In 1815, Geneva was one of the last cantons to join the country of Switzerland; before that, it was known as the Republic of Geneva, a European state in itself founded by Jean Calvin in 1541, which was briefly annexed to France after the French Revolution, from 1798 to 1813.

Much of its culture is, logically, mixed and remixed between some French aspects and other more Swiss/Germanic ones, which is what makes Geneva so unique.

Yet, a strong Genevan identity remains which can be reflected in its history. Take for example the events of L’Escalade (the climb) in 1602.

The Republic of Geneva was much coveted by Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. In the night of December 11 and 12 of that year, he sent his troops there in the hope of claiming its name.

A battle he thought he was sure of winning ensued, with soldiers climbing the city’s ramparts on gigantic ladders – hence L’Escalade – to reach what is today the very small old town of Geneva.

Every citizen left their homes in the middle of the night, still in their night clothes, and helped defend the Republic. Legend has it La Mère Royaume (Mother Kingdom) threw her boiling cauldron onto a soldier who died instantly. To this day, she is still a hero of Genevan heritage.

Chocolate cauldron with Geneva flag [Clément Bucco-Lechat]

As if winning wasn’t enough, Genevans have made this historic victory a traditional celebration on December 12 every year.

To celebrate La Mère Royaume’s act, we eat a chocolate cauldron filled with marzipan vegetables. The eldest and youngest hold their fists together to break the cauldron to pieces after chanting: “Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la république!” (“Thus perished the enemies of the republic!”).

Although not a proper holiday, the tradition is that all educational establishments, from pre-school to secondary school, take the day off teaching to celebrate on school grounds (if the date is on a weekend, celebrations are held a day or two before or after).

Everyone comes dressed as anything; I have in the past been a siamese twin and seen someone dressed as a gift box.

While primary schools usually serve a traditional soup made with vegetables the pupils have brought to the kitchen, some secondary schools organise themed parties with many activities and food stands, and, once students hit the age of 15, a questionable amount of booze is smuggled in as well.

Other secondary schools march through the city, and do lovely things such as throwing eggs and shaving foam at one another, the questionable amount of booze is present too.

Genevans unite in their own ways, but that doesn’t mean it should exclude anyone whose ancestry is foreign, especially when taking into account the fact that the citizens of the Republic of 1602 probably only have a small percentage of posterity remaining in today’s city.

The author dressed as a pink unicorn at L’Escalade in 1995

Geneva is also an international hub; it is home to a high number of international organisations, among which the European headquarters for the UN and the headquarters for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to name a few.

It is also home to the oldest International School in the world (Ecolint), where the International Baccalaureate (IB) was founded in 1968.

A high number of expats also call Geneva home; they are usually employees of international organisations and students of the Ecolint from all around the world, making the city ever more multicultural.

Around 60 per cent of the population in 2011 came from a foreign background, meaning both their parents were born outside of the country.

I asked two Genevans whose parents were born abroad what they thought of the Swiss identity.

Ana, whose parents are both from Romania, and who now lives in London, thinks there is such a thing as Swiss identity. “To me, Swiss identity precisely means belonging to other identities, all the while keeping Swiss values,” she says.

I asked her if coming from a foreign background meant she felt less Swiss.

“No, I never felt I wasn’t Swiss,” she told us. “On the contrary, I feel more Swiss than any of my other nationalities. When people ask me where I’m from I tend to say I’m 100 per cent Swiss.”

She believes growing up in a city like Geneva makes you much more open-minded about the idea that being Swiss means being from everywhere.

Switzerland is complex indeed, even just in terms of geography and language barriers. I have come to wonder what it means to be Swiss lately after reading about one of the latest popular initiatives.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I feel more Swiss than any of my other nationalities. When people ask me where I’m from I tend to say I’m 100per cent Swiss.”[/pullquote]Despite a longtime reputation of being a traditionally welcoming country for refugees and despite its renowned political neutrality, Switzerland is still no exception to the tumultuous political climate of Europe.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the haven of peace that is the country gives way to darker views.

On February 12, a referendum took place to make it easier for third-generation immigrants to gain Swiss citizenship. And it passed, which was good news.

But with this referendum came rather shocking and provocative posters from the Swiss People’s Party – the country’s conservative and nationalist party – opposing the initiative.

Funnily enough, although its German name Schweizerische Volkspartei indeed means the Swiss people’s party, its name in French and Italian means the Democratic Union of the Centre (shortened to UDC).

Some might be surprised to find that the ‘centre’ puts up highly anti-Muslim posters of a woman wearing a niqab which say: “Uncontrolled naturalisations? NO to facilitated naturalisations”, when in reality, only a very small percentage of those eligible for citizenship under new rules turn out to be Muslims.

Out of the 25,000 young people eligible, around 58 per cent are Italians descended from the wave of immigration of the 1950s and 1960s.

Other controversial posters have included white sheep kicking black sheep out of the country with a slogan saying: “For more safety.”

Although these works of art have been around for years (courtesy of Alexander Segert, a fairly racist advertiser also working for Austria’s populist Freedom Party, FPÖ), they seem to hold a more significant weight recently with events in the rest of the world, in particular Brexit, European far-right political parties’ rise in popularity and everything Trump.

And we really felt it three years ago, when Switzerland had its own kind of Brexit, on February 9, 2014.

The people had to vote for an initiative aiming to regulate and eventually reduce immigration by setting annual quotas according to the country’s economic interests, and so as to respect “national preference”, as the text states.

The initiative, titled “Against mass immigration”, was launched by our ‘centre’ party, and 50.3 per cent of voters agreed to slow down the country’s immigration, despite the UDC being the only party to stand in favour of it.

Obviously, this led to the European Union being pretty fed up with Switzerland who, despite not being a part of it, still enjoy certain EU advantages thanks to a number of agreements, such as free movement in Europe.

The referendum’s figures much resembled those of Brexit, which is the reason why I wasn’t too surprised to hear the news on the morning of June 23, 2016.

UDC posters for the initiative to send foreign criminals back to their home countries. Left: “Ivan S, Rapist and soon-to-be Swiss? NO to the counter-project.” [Richard Allaway]

The country’s most multicultural city and canton, Geneva, largely rejected the initiative by 60.9 per cent, echoing London’s rejection of Brexit by 59.9 per cent, which goes on to show that people who are constantly exposed to multiculturalism are indeed less scared of the unknown, and vice versa.

Although the referendum took place three years ago, the text still hasn’t entered into effect.

And, ironically, contrary to what the UDC had predicted, immigration in Switzerland has not exploded but rather lessened over the past three years, according to an article in the Tribune de Genève: the number of new immigrants per year has gone from 100,000 in 2008 to 60,000 in 2016.

Because the growing fear of foreigners in countries all over the world is heartbreaking for anyone of mixed background such as myself and most of my peers here in London, I wanted to understand what it is that part of my country is trying to safeguard by rejecting the unknown.

I spoke to Léa, who is half-Norwegian. She thinks the interpretation of what being Swiss means changes a lot depending on where you are from in the country.

“The national identity from a Swiss-French point of view must be very different for a Swiss-German,” she says.

Léa believes that, because it is not part of the EU, Switzerland is like a small island in the middle of the continent – we have our own currency and we are very rarely affected by economic crises and wars, which forces us to build our own identity, hence the rise in populism and the success of far-right parties such as the UDC, as if the country was looking to be marginal on purpose, she thinks.

On a personal level, she does feel Swiss but feels equally Norwegian, which she thinks is a shared feeling among Genevans. The same way I felt mostly Genevan before moving out of the country, she says she feels more Swiss-French than anything.

“It’s much easier to have dual nationality, or to have been born to non-Swiss parents, and still feel accepted in the Leman region environment than if I had to grow up in Solothurn (a Swiss-German town) for example,” she thinks, concluding by saying she knows very few people who are 100 per cent Swiss, but that even with them “nothing separates us”.

Swiss identity varies from one place to the other, which can be hard to understand for those who have not been exposed to multiculturalism and for whom the concept of Switzerland being a terre d’accueil (welcoming land) isn’t deeply rooted in their values.

These people are trying to safeguard something that doesn’t exist anymore, a ‘Swissness’ that is outdated and which made sense perhaps only until one or two centuries ago.

As a Genevan, my view on identity is bound to be based on the way I was brought up, with the values and traditions of my canton which might differ from other ones, as I have not travelled much within Switzerland, as well as values and traditions from my parents’ three countries.

But this is exactly what makes the country so accepting, welcoming and united in the end, allowing each and every one of us to be part of the bigger picture.

This is Switzerland.




Featured image by Alicia Streijffert 

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