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Hotel Arbez: Inside the historic hotel straddling the Swiss and French borders

The Hotel Arbez, which is located both in Switzerland and France, has a colourful history - including playing a lifesaving role against the Nazis in the Second World War.

Hotel Arbez: Inside the historic hotel straddling the Swiss and French borders
The Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse. Photo: BRUNO FERRANDEZ / AFP

For most of its history, the tiny village of La Cure was situated completely in France.

However when the borders were redrawn in the middle of the 18th century, the village took on important strategic value – as did some of its buildings. 

Towards the start of the 19th century the building was converted into a hotel. Known as the Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse or simply the Hotel Franco-Suisse, the hotel remains situated on the border to this day. 

Over the years the hotel has served as a means of beating tax, smuggling – and saving lives during the Second World War. 

More recently, it became important for people to see their families when borders were closed during the Covid pandemic. 

How did the hotel come about? 

While the location is of course a quirk of history, geopolitics and fate, it’s also a consequence of an opportunistic businessman who saw the value in a building that would sit on the border between two wealthy and powerful nations. 

A Frenchman named Pontus owned the block of land in the tiny town of La Cure. While the vacant block previously had little value, Pontus saw his opportunity when Switzerland and France decided to sign a treaty to resolve a dispute about the location of the border. 

Specifically, the dispute related to the Vallee des Dappes, which was deemed to have significant military value by the French. As a result, the French and Swiss agreed to share the disputed region – which is where Pontus came in. 

According to City Monitor magazine, luck was also a major factor. 

“The French were very keen on getting hold of the Vallee des Dappes, which provided a military route to nearby Savoy, and which they’d briefly held during the Napoleonic wars, until they’d been forced to give it up at the Congress of Vienna. In the half century since, those awkward Swiss had proved a bit bloody minded about giving it back. So, in 1862, they came up with a plan. The French would get their valley back; in return, the Swiss would get a similarly sized patch nearby. That included a chunk of La Cure.”

When Pontus became aware that his block of land would straddle the borders of the countries, he realised that it would be subject to a law designed to preserve existing buildings along the border. 

Thinking quickly – and taking advantage of some predictable delays from Swiss parliament – Pontus built a three-story structure on his block of land that would eventually come to straddle the border. 

Austria’s Der Standard newspaper reports that the builders were able to finish the roof just in time before the border treaty came into effect in 1863 – meaning that his new construction was protected by the law. 

When the building was finished, two thirds of it were in France with the remaining third in Switzerland. 

Pontus got to work immediately, building a grocery store in the Swiss side and a pub in the French side, in order to “skilfully exploit the tax advantages” of a building which was simultaneously in two nations. 

The Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse. Photo: BRUNO FERRANDEZ / AFP

Became a hotel in 1921 – and a way to save lives during the Second World War

While the site was lucrative, Pontus’ descendants fell on hard times and needed to sell the building. 

It was bought by the family Arbez, who converted it into a hotel. 

While the site may have been built as a rather cynical exploitation of international affairs and local laws, it’s multi-country location would serve a humanitarian purpose during the Second World War. 

Despite France being occupied by Nazi Germany, the Swiss parts of the hotel were still off limits to Nazi forces – as by entering these parts of the hotel, they would technically be invading neutral Switzerland. 

As a result, the Arbez family were able to use their central location to smuggle hundreds of Jewish families across the border in both directions to avoid capture, or to hide them in their hotel. 

According to Traveller magazine, “the entire upstairs became a safe haven for fugitives and members of the French Resistance”.

The hotel was the inspiration for the French-British WW2 film La Grande Vadrouille, which came out in 1962. 

The location again became important during the negotiations to end the Algerian War, when Algerian freedom fighters stayed upstairs (in Switzerland) as the Evian Accords were being negotiated with the French to end the war. 

The hotel then took on strategic value once more during the first wave of the Covid pandemic in 2020, when borders were closed to most people. 

According to Der Standard, a handful of local residents used the hotel to cross the border and visit their loved ones. 

The Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse. Photo: BRUNO FERRANDEZ / AFP

What is it like today? 

While the pandemic is ongoing, borders have largely returned to their previous status – which means that the location’s main function is again as a hotel. 

If you really want to experience sleeping in two countries at the same time, you’ll need to ask to stay in rooms six, nine or 12 – all of which are in two countries.

In room 12 the bathroom is in France while the rest is in Switzerland – which as Austria’s Der Standard newspaper puts it, allows you to brush your teeth in one country before going to bed in another.

The dining room of the hotel as well as the kitchen, the hallway and the stairs are also built directly along the border.

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OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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