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ANALYSIS: Do Switzerland’s linguistic groups really get along with each other?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: Do Switzerland’s linguistic groups really get along with each other?
The Swiss are mostly united, though frictions happen. Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

Conflicts between linguistic regions have arisen in other countries, like in Belgium and Canada. But has Switzerland really managed to keep peace among different language speakers in the country?


For a small country of 8.9 million where four official languages are spoken (German, French, Italian, and Romansh), Switzerland has done extremely well in terms of national cohesion.

READ ALSO: How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?

In the name of peaceful and non-confrontational co-existence that is a big part of Switzerland’s mentality, all the regions have gotten along nicely, without major hostilities.

This is a positive development to note, especially as September 12th marks the 175th anniversary of Switzerland's constitution, which establishes the autonomy of cantons and their respective languages.

At most, there is a good-natured rivalry between the regions, with the Swiss Germans claiming superiority over their French and Italian-speaking counterparts.

But all the linguistic groups band together in the name of national pride when it comes to asserting superiority over foreigners.

READ ALSO: Why do the Swiss think they are superior to everyone else?

But does this mean there are no conflicts at all between the German, French, Italian, and Romansh speakers?

In terms of dissention and hostilities that rip apart the very fabric of society, the answer is no.

And whatever disagreements there are, they are never played out on a world stage, for all to see, but internally, within its own borders.

There have been, and still are, frictions between the German and French speakers, which constitute the country’s two largest groups (62.3 percent and 22.8 percent, respectively).

One reason is the political and economic imbalance, with most power concentrated in the Swiss German part.

Consequently, there’s a predominance of German speakers in the federal administration, for instance, even though each language group is (or at least should be) represented proportionally.

There are also more Swiss-Germans in top managerial positions, which vexes the Suisse Romands (as French speakers are called), although it is not clear whether this is because there are proportionally more German speakers in Switzerland, or whether there is an actual bias in place.

One way the dissatisfaction has manifested itself in recent history was during the peak of the Covid pandemic, when the The French and German speakers blamed the Italian-language Ticino for not stopping the spread of the virus (the canton was the first in Switzerland to report a coronavirus case due to its proximity to Italy, where the European outbreak had began).

As the virus spread throughout the country in an uneven manner, French-speakers started to blame the Swiss Germans for not containing the virus, and vice-versa.


On the wrong track

This feeling of inequality among the Suisse Romands was validated when the national railway SBB, published its new 2025 timetable, which eliminates or cuts trains on several lines in the region.

This “has angered a large part of French-speaking Switzerland,” who blame SBB’s Swiss-German management for the change, according to Tribune de Genève.  


These are all relatively minor squabbles, but have there been actual conflicts that have threatened to bring the country to collapse?

The most recent example of a potentially explosive event is the decision by the French-speaking commune of Moutier to leave the predominantly German-speaking canton Bern for francophone Jura — a move that has highlighted the sometimes stark cultural and political differences between Switzerland’s linguistic regions. 

In a historic referendum in 2017, which was borne out of years of unrest between the French and German speakers, the people of Moutier voted to move cantons.

This event had generated a lot of controversy and local conflicts, but  it has not brought Switzerland to the brink of collapse.

What about the Italian and Romansh speakers?

There have not been any notable conflicts involving either of these groups.
The reasons could be that there are relatively few (about 60,000) Romansh speakers, who live in the German-speaking canton of Graubünden.

As for Italian speakers, the majority of whom live in Ticino, they depend on tourism revenue from the other two linguistic groups, so there have not been any serious criticism of their bigger and more powerful neighbours.


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