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

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 26 Sep, 2022 Updated Mon 26 Sep 2022 10:48 CEST
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What's a little spat between neighbours? Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP

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?

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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".

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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Helena Bachmann in Geneva 2022/09/26 10:48

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