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Swiss immigration vote 'bad news' for French

The Local/AFP · 10 Feb 2014, 12:16

Published: 10 Feb 2014 11:24 GMT+01:00
Updated: 10 Feb 2014 12:16 GMT+01:00

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The French government joined European leaders on Monday to express concern at the result of a Swiss referendum on Sunday in which voters backed a plan to limit mass immigration.

The vote, which 50.34 percent of the electorate favoured, will now oblige Switzerland to set its own quotas for immigrants from the EU, and puts the country on a collision path with France and other countries in the union. It also leaves tens of thousands of EU nationals who work in Switzerland facing an uncertain future.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was one of the first members of the government in Paris to criticize the vote.

“It is paradoxical because Switzerland does 60 percent of its foreign trade with the EU and exists very much as part of the EU,” Fabius told RTL radio.

“This is bad news for both Europe and Switzerland, because Switzerland will close in on itself and it will suffer because of it,” he added.

Switzerland is without doubt in good economic health but “all alone, the country would not represent a considerable economic power," the foreign minister said. "We're going to review our relations with Switzerland," he said, referring to Europe.

French workers concerned

But those who have most at stake are the tens of thousands of EU nationals who work in Switzerland.  They include an estimated 145,000 French residents who make their living across the border and the 140,000 French nationals who live and work in Switzerland.

SEE ALSO: Paris tax hunt sends French over to Switzerland

Jean François Besson, the secretary general of "Groupement Transfrontalier Europeen", which represents tens of thousands of French nationals working Switzerland told The Local on Monday that the vote was a "rejection" of French workers and it will inevitably spark concern and uncertainty.

“Of course we are worried. It’s not good news. Firstly psychologically it sends a negative message to foreigners in Switzerland. It says ‘the people of Switzerland have voted against you’. It’s a rejection of foreigners," Besson said.

“Secondly they are anxious about their economic situation. Although there are no immediate consequences, the French people who work in Switzerland will be worried about their future status. They will now enter a period of insecurity.

"They face many questions in the years ahead," he said.

Besson said the Swiss vote has come at a bad time for France and Europe.

“This was the last thing we needed right now. We are in the middle of an economic crisis and it comes as there is a rising anti-EU trend across Europe.”

'Switzerland cannot cherry pick'

Neutral Switzerland is not in the EU but is ringed by countries in the 28-nation bloc.

Since 2007, residents from 15 countries in the EU have enjoyed an equal footing with locals on the job market of Switzerland, a country of 8.1 million.

The Swiss later expanded the freedom of movement agreement to eight other European countries in 2011. 

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter said the federal government would examine in the next few weeks ways to "rework" relations with the European single market, Switzerland's largest trading partner.

But Burkhalter underlined that the freedom of movement accord, and other agreements with the EU, would remain in place until a new deal is put in place.

Fabius meanwhile joined European Union leaders in reminding Switzerland that it cannot just cherry pick the most advantageous parts of its EU agreement.

“There is a so-called clause in the agreements that if one element is in question, which in this case is the free movement of workers, then the whole thing falls. So that means we would have to renegotiate,” Fabius warned.

Interestingly, a majority of citizens in German-speaking and Italian-speaking cantons supported the referendum, and most from French-speaking cantons, which are home to most foreign workers, opposed it.

Vote backed by the right

Right-wing parties in France have naturally been more welcoming of the result of the Swiss vote.

“The fact that Switzerland wants to reduce the number of foreigners in its territory is natural,” said the former prime minister for the conservative UMP party François Fillon.

“Either Europe implements a serious policy towards immigration or it doesn’t, and then it cannot stop individual states from doing so,” Fillon said.

France's far-right National Front party hailed "the Swiss people's lucidity" in a statement, calling for France to likewise stop "mass immigration".

Story continues below…

"Swiss referendum: Managing immigration is a national priority - the programme of the National Front," tweeted its delighted leader Marine Le Pen.

French political analyst Jean-Yves Camus from IRIS (Institute of International Relations and Strategies) told The Local on Monday that France’s National Front will use the Swiss referendum to its own advantage as it campaigns for the upcoming local elections.

“The National Front will try to show French voters that there is already one country where people voted against Europe and against immigration," Camus said. "They will argue that if the Swiss people who are well educated and in a financially strong position can vote against Europe and immigration then so can you”.

While concerns have been raised about the impact on the Swiss economy of the vote, the Swiss franc remained strong in currency exchange trading early on Monday morning.

The franc was valued at €0.81740, down slightly from €0.82 a week earlier.

Our sister site The Local Switzerland has much more reaction to Sunday's referendum, including a piece on the varied reaction on Twitter to the vote. (CLICK below)

Twitter round-up: 'Swiss xenophobia prevails'

The Local/AFP (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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