OPINION: ‘Eidgenosse’ and what does it really mean to be Swiss?

Whoever is in the possession of a Swiss passport is considered to be Swiss. But as Serbian-born, Swiss national Sandra Sparrowhawk explains, things are not always quite so simple in reality.

OPINION: 'Eidgenosse' and what does it really mean to be Swiss?
A Swiss biometric passport is photographed in Lausanne on September 15, 2018. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

It was a mild spring day in the quaint town of Reiden and I was sat in the garden of a fellow student’s lush family home surrounded by around one third of my class.

All born to Swiss parents. All, but me. At the time, we were in the last leg of our apprenticeship and everyone mutually decided to kick off our imminent graduation and the much anticipated start to our adult lives with a celebratory barbecue. Everything was going smoothly. The sun was out, the food was being prepped, the conversation was flowing, jokes were being made. But it is as they say, all good things must come to an end.

Now in my time being Swiss, I’ve been all too aware of this sobering reality. I had learned it the hard way through the years and this day was no different. As I looked down to devour the last of my Bratwurst, I heard it clearly – “Jugo”. A disparaging term widely used in Switzerland to describe citizens of former Yugoslavia. My classmates turned friends had – unbeknown to them – made a joke at my expense. Laughter soon erupted. I remember looking up with an awkward half-smirk only to be met with confusion as the last of the giggles died down. The host turned to me and asked: “What’s the matter with you”?

The matter with me, as it turns out, is not so easily explained. Not even 15 years following the event, nor 32 years into being Swiss. Back then, a veil had been lifted and behind it was me. Uncomfortable, deeply conflicted, Serbian me.

But my story isn’t unique to me. It is one that is shared by many Swiss citizens with a migration background.

‘Anyone can be Swiss’

It was the year 2010 when Aarberg-born wrestler Christian Stucki declared: “Anyone can become Swiss, but not anyone can become Eidgenosse”. The latter term is occasionally used to refer to native Swiss citizens, as opposed to those having obtained citizenship via the second-rate passport route. Stucki’s daring declaration rightfully earned him some heat back in 2010 and his manager was quick to retaliate. But the question remains, when is one truly considered Swiss, and is there some truth in Stucki’s statement?

What does it mean to be Swiss? Photo by Valeriano de Domenico/AFP

This debate enjoyed a brief stint on the political stage. In 2012, a parliamentarian from Switzerland’s largest political party, SVP Schweiz, demanded that the Zurich authorities divide Swiss citizens into two groups: naturalised and those Swiss since birth. The purpose behind this proposal was to enable Swiss authorities to highlight key differences, such as a higher crime rate or a disproportionate receipt of social assistance in naturalised citizens, and hence offer aid where needed. Or so was the claim.

Despite the change never seeing the light of day, the divisive terminology largely used to differentiate between native and non-native Swiss citizens persists and can, for many Swiss with a migration background, be a hard pill to swallow.

What’s in a word?

The term Eidgenosse means different things to different people and is by no means accompanied by a negative connotation at all times. To some Swiss, it simply serves as a reference for outstanding Swiss wrestlers. To others, it describes nothing more than a down-to-earth Swiss citizen – of any background. Still others associate the term with an old army bicycle, or even a local pub. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of the term Eidgenosse is particularly favoured in extreme right-wing and nationalistic circles and hence runs the risk of reinforcing an already-existing distinction between the “true Swiss” and everyone else.

Today, the distinction is often used in certain circles and in rural Switzerland, where a few select people have taken it upon themselves to divide Swiss citizens even further.

More specifically, they have introduced an unofficial three-level division, which differentiates not only between native and non-native Swiss, but divides citizens into three categories: Secondos (naturalised Swiss), Swiss (naturalised for at least two generations and fluent in a Swiss dialect), and lastly, Eidgenossen (Swiss citizens on Swiss soil since the beginning of their family chronicle). The latter is nearly impossible to prove.

Meanwhile, linguistics suggest that a term such as Eidgenosse, meant to differentiate between people, is usually born whenever a need for such a differentiation arises, be it increased crime rates, concealment of mass immigration or wage dumping. However, it is commonly understood that these divisive terms should never become a fixed part of common usage.

A ‘typically Swiss’ dog breed: the Bernese mountain dog. (Photo by Alexandra Lau on Unsplash)

Whenever I hear the word Eidgenosse, I think of the year 1291, when, according to legend, the three confederates of Central Switzerland – Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden – founded the Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft with the Rütli oath. Those three gentleman and their kinsmen and women born before 1798, when Napoleon destroyed the Old Confederation, are the sole claimants to the title Eidgenosse. Everyone else should be judged on a case by case basis – preferably with DNA papers to hand.

As for me, I consider myself as Swiss as they come. I was born in Switzerland, grew up here, my closest friends are Swiss, I speak German and French without so much as a hint of an accent, I am most at home speaking in Aargauerdüütsch, enjoyed my education here, work here, take part in Swiss traditions and celebrations, and fulfil all other civic duties expected of a Swiss citizen. I even adopted two Bernese Mountain Dogs for good measure. Yet, whenever my maiden name comes up in conversation – Micić – I am treated as an outsider. Non-Swiss. It is a reality I’ve come to live with, though I shouldn’t have to.

To return to my question from before, when is one considered truly Swiss? Well, to keep it simple: when one feels Swiss and that is entirely up to you.

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‘Annoying… unbearable’: How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

Switzerland and France are neighbours and the relations between the two countries have been (mostly) amicable. But how much do the people really like each other?

‘Annoying... unbearable': How the Swiss see their French neighbours — and vice versa

While you can sometimes hear people in Switzerland — mostly those living in the French-speaking cantons — grumble about their neighbours from across the border, it seems that the French are not totally enthused about the Swiss either.

This became obvious when the French TV station M6 dedicated its “Enquête exclusive” programme on September 16th to Switzerland.

Titled “Our amazing Swiss neighbours”, the programme noted that the Swiss “live a few kilometres from us, often speak the same language and yet are so different”.

‘Swiss particularities’

The word ‘amazing’, as used in the French programme, is not necessarily intended as a compliment — at least not totally. In this particular context, it means “bewildering” or “perplexing”.

The show did not focus on the typical stereotypes that many foreigners usually bring up when describing Switzerland: cheese, chocolate, and yodelling.

Instead, it pointed out other aspects of “Swissness”: the people’s love of firearms. It featured one ‘typical’ Swiss family, the Gobets, where everyone — including the kids — shoots and their cupboards are full of assault rifles.

Yet, as the programme accurately noted, despite the abundance of firearms, gun violence is very rare in this country.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

If you did not watch this show, this is how the Swiss media described it:

“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”.

All this may be somewhat exaggerated, but there is much truth in it.

‘They get on our nerves’

The Swiss did not take what they consider to be unflattering and limited portrayal of their country sitting down; instead, the media conducted a survey of their own, focusing on the perceptions people in Switzerland have of their neighbour.

Several themes come out of the survey:

  • The majority of respondents (68 percent) think France is no longer ‘a great country’. This observation, pollsters note, evokes “secret satisfaction” among the Swiss.
  • 57 percent  think that France has more negative than positive aspects.
  • 60 percent of survey participants say they have no inferiority complex vis-à-vis their much bigger neighbour, while a fifth go even further, stating they feel superior to the French.
  • 36 percent of respondents say the French ‘get on their nerves’, with some finding them ‘annoying’ or even ‘unbearable’. 
  • Nearly half — 48 percent — say the French have ‘big mouth’.
  • A minority (11 percent) say the French are ‘ridiculous’ and pretend to be more important that they are.

Though they could be considered as unkind by some, these reactions are far milder than comments gathered several years ago by a Swiss paper, Le Matin Dimanche.

Swiss employers interviewed by the newspaper deemed their French workers as “lazy” and “arrogant” employees, who “complain all the time”, and have have “a penchant for ringing in sick on Mondays and Fridays”.

However, this is only a small part of the full picture.

The vast majority of Swiss companies that employ French cross-border workers appreciate their input.

This was especially the case during the Covid pandemic, when cross-border employees from France kept Geneva and Vaud’s healthcare system from collapsing.

“Without cross-border workers, our hospitals would not be functioning”, Bertrand Vuilleumier, head of the hospital association in Vaud said at the time.

Have there ever been any real problems between Switzerland and France?

The Swiss weren’t thrilled to see Napoleon’s army cross the Alps into Switzerland in 1798.

And they are not amicably disposed toward them either when France’s national football team plays against Switzerland.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

But apart from that, things have been mostly cordial — except for a few minor spats.

Several years ago, there was a story about Switzerland’s military flying their helicopters over to France to “steal” water from a French lake in order to quench the thirst of some 20,000 Swiss cows suffering from dehydration during an especially hot summer.

There was apparently not enough water in Swiss lakes to meet the demand.

The incident spurred a bit of an outrage in France, where a newspaper claimed that “to save its cows, Switzerland steals water from France”.

However, in the end, the Swiss apologised, and all ended well.

A more recent incident happened in July, when Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset  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 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 minister, originally from canton Fribourg, is of French mother tongue.

Once on the tarmac, an identity check was carried out and Berset was able to leave.

So that ended peacefully as well.