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Are the Swiss and the French friendly neighbours?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Are the Swiss and the French friendly neighbours?
Berset and Macron (closest to camera) have met before, in Paris on September 12, 2018. Photo by IAN LANGSDON / POOL / AFP

As France’s president is starting his state visit to Switzerland on Wednesday, it's a good time to look at the relationship between the two countries.

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Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte have a busy schedule during their two-day state visit.

Aside from discussing with Swiss president Alain Berset the planned resumption of talks between Switzerland and the EU, Macron will also attend a debate on Europe’s future at the University of Lausanne, and visit the European laboratory for nuclear research and particle physics (CERN) in Geneva.

The Swiss are going all out for the visit; in a message on X (formerly Twitter) the government spokesperson André Simonazzi  stressed that the two countries share a “long and rich” diplomatic history — which, for obvious reasons, doesn’t mention Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland in 1798.

Another reason for the excitement is that Macron is only the fifth French president to visit Switzerland in 113 years.

“Welcoming a French president to our land for an official state visit is an extremely rare pleasure, which occurs every 25 years on average,” according to Swiss media.

Why is this? Watson news platform speculates that French heads of state are staying away from Switzerland because they may be “afraid of Schwizerdütsch [ Swiss German] assaulting their delicate ears, or of being served Riz Casimir” —  the Swiss dish that has been named "one of the worst rice dishes in the world.” 

The visits of the three past presidents — Armand Fallières in 1910, François Mitterrand in 1983, and François Hollande in 2015 — went smoothly.

However, the state visit of Jacques Chirac in 1998, really cheesed off the usually placid Swiss.

Aside from not knowing the name of the then Swiss president Flavio Cotti, Chirac made another gaffe.

“I would not in any way want to be unpleasant towards our Swiss friends,” he said as cheese plates were passed around at the end of a meal. “But, when it comes to cheese, the French have no lessons to learn from anyone. We make the best.”

However, this is not the only diplomatic snafu between the two countries.

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From cows to planes

Though the Swiss are usually well versed in the delicate art of diplomacy, they have been known to inadvertently ‘invade’ their neighbours — not just Liechtenstein, but also France.

These are some examples:

In July 2022, Alain Berset, a licensed pilot, flew a small, single-engine plane into France, approaching a prohibited zone.

Despite being ordered by ground control to vacate the no-fly area, Berset, then Switzerland’s Health Minister, continued on his course, requiring an intervention by France’s Air Force — a military jet reportedly positioned itself near Berset’s, forcing him to land.

Once on the ground, Berset explained that he misunderstood the order to land, though the president, originally from canton Fribourg, is of French mother tongue.

READ ALSO: Berset’s botched flight the latest in a long line of Swiss ‘invasions’

It is not known whether Berset will discuss this incident when Macron visits, but we are guessing not.

Seven years prior, in 2015, France’s border was also violated — this time by the mighty Swiss army.

That summer, army helicopters flew into a small French town of Les Rousses to draw water from its lake to quench the thirst of Switzerland’s cattle.

It was part of the military’s assignment to airlift water to about 20,000 cows grazing on mountain pastures and to set up water tanks for the livestock.

The French pointed out — correctly — that Switzerland has plenty of lakes of its own, so there was  no need to steal foreign water.

After a hastily convened meeting between the two countries, Switzerland’s Defence Ministry apologised to Les Rousses and its residents; the apology was accepted, and the whole incident is now water under the bridge.

Another memorable incident involving Switzerland’s military occurred in 2020.

For the first time ever, members of Swiss army were invited to march in a parade commemorating France's Bastille Day on July 14th as a ‘thank you’ gesture for Switzerland's help during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Swiss hospitals took in patients from France, where there was a shortage of beds.

Four members of the army's Flag Guard were sent to Paris, but when these soldiers marched among their French counterparts along the Place de la Concorde, carrying a Swiss flag, their walk was not synchronised, uncoordinated and decidedly unmilitary.

The underwhelming performance sparked comments of derision back home in Switzerland, where some social media commentators suggested that “Swiss army is made up of clowns" and that “Switzerland owes France an official apology".

READ ALSO: Swiss army ridiculed for 'clownish' performance

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So are Swiss and French good neighbours?

Except for a few diplomatic snafus mentioned above — oui.

As Swiss authorities have pointed out in the days leading up to Macron’s visit, the two countries have much in common, besides the geographic proximity due to the 600-km-long border they share.

For instance, 210,000 Swiss citizens live in France, and 163,000 French live in Switzerland.

Besides this permanent population, 220,000 cross-border commuters from France are employed in Switzerland, mostly in Geneva and Vaud. They are essential to Switzerland’s economy, as they fill the positions for which no Swiss workforce can be found.

But that’s just the official part.

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So close and yet so different

In 2022, French TV station M6 dedicated its "Enquête exclusive" programme to Switzerland — or rather to opinions each country’s residents have of each other.

The results reveal what the two neighbours really think of each other.

The French were perplexed by Swiss “particularities,” which the Swiss media described thus: “It is impossible not to laugh, on this side of the border, watching the broadcast …bunkers, militia soldiers lurking in the mountains and ready to repel the enemy, customs officers who are masters in the art of flushing out meat bought in France, municipal employees in ambush to flush out the person guilty of placing his waste in the wrong bin."

When expressing their views of the French, the Swiss were not exactly neutral either.

They described the French as "lazy and arrogant” and said French people employed in Switzerland  have "a penchant for ringing in sick on Mondays and Fridays".

READ ALSO: How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

However, none of the above reactions will be discussed between presidents Macron and Berset during the state visit.

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Comments (1)

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Mitchell Calderwood 2023/11/15 22:56
Thanks Helena, This was hilarious!!! The funniest thing I have read in a while. It's nice to be smiling about politics than frowning about politics!
  • Anonymous 2023/11/16 14:37
    Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the article.

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