Defying Switzerland's new racist reputation

NEUCHATEL, Switzerland — Switzerland made headlines last month after a referendum banned the building of minarets. While the vote gained Switzerland a reputation for xenophobia, the canton of Neuchatel — one of 24 county-size states — has some of the most progressive policies towards foreigners in Europe.

Asked if she has experienced racism in Neuchatel, nurse Josiane Jemmely shrugged and smiled. “Once,” she said, “when an old couple said they refused to be touched by a black person.”

The interesting thing is what happened next. Cameroon-born Jemmely reported the incident to the home-nursing company she works for, which promptly sent out a sharply worded letter to every client condemning racist behavior and warning that the company would not work for racists.

Neuchatel has long been a pioneering region and was one of Switzerland’s four cantons to vote against the banning of minarets. Situated near the French border in a landscape of lakes, mountains and valleys, it has a population of about 170,000, of whom 25 percent are foreigners. Portuguese, Italians and Spaniards head a list of some 150 foreign nationalities. The canton’s economy centers on the watch industry and unemployment remains relatively low.

Switzerland’s army and police are federal forces, but most other authorities are at canton level. In the case of Neuchatel, equal rights are enshrined in the law. As Congo-born local councilor Raoul Lembwadio said: “People may be racist but the institutions are not.”

And that may be a key to ensuring that different cultures live peacefully, side-by-side. Moroccan lawyer Amina Benkais explained: “Unlike some of my friends, I always say that I am a practicing Muslim. I see myself as a positive image of a successful foreign woman with no conflicting loyalties.” Although she has dual Moroccan and French nationality, Benkais was elected to the local Socialist party. As far as she is concerned, the public referendum on minarets was a false debate orchestrated by the right. “We Muslims don’t even think minarets are important,” she said.

Foreigners have voted in Neuchatel elections since 1849, and in 2007 a law was passed that allowed them to stand for election at communal (local) level after five years’ residency. “We were startled when we covered the riots in the French suburbs a few years back,” said Chantal Tauxe, deputy editor of the weekly L’Hebdo, “to discover that despite our stingy naturalization laws, we Swiss treat our foreigners much better than the French, even though it’s easy to get French nationality.”

Lembwadio is the canton’s first black elected representative. A big, boisterous man, he’s Swiss now and his five children all have jobs, including a daughter who is a lawyer in nearby La Chaux-de-Fonds. “When I first arrived,” he said, “and after I’d got used to the cold, I decided to get involved in civic life. I would write letters to the executive council about hedges obstructing the railway tracks and things like that. Then — with some trepidation — I stood in local elections and was elected on the Socialist Party list. It made me feel there was a place for me in this society.”

“Like the whole of Europe, Switzerland is a land of immigration, and this is going to be increasingly true,” said Pascal Mahon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Neuchatel. Mahon helped produce Neuchatel’s Citizenship Charter, which spells out the rules of Swiss democracy and is given to every new arrival to the canton.

But much of the credit for Neuchatel’s forward-looking attitudes goes to indefatigable networker Thomas Facchinetti, who created and has been running the foreigners’ office since 1990. “We’re a form of counter-power,” he said. “We mediate between the political authorities and migrant associations.”

Recent issues have involved Muslim burial rights in local cemeteries and the occupation of a public building by illegal citizens, but more often they concern less controversial issues such as holding an Italian festival in a village. The canton has measures to facilitate integration, such as easily accessible French language courses and rules about mixed housing and openness in the job market. Police and administrative officials are given special training, and even building managers receive lessons in multiculturalism.

Not everything is rosy in Neuchatel. Belul Bajrami represents the Balkan community and is an international kickboxing referee. He runs a sports center in the city of Neuchatel where young people are encouraged to channel their violence into a rule-bound sport. A few years ago, two youths attacked a refugee center. In response, they were sent to an anti-racism course.

Nurse Nathalie Fellrath’s parents are from Gabon — one black, the other white. A mother of four, Fellrath was elected to her town's Socialist party. “I was born here and I feel Swiss,” said Fellrath, “but people are confused by the way I look. It’s strange to belong to a culture to which you don’t appear to belong, but I also realize that I am a role model for many black people.”

Fellrath, like many people of foreign descent in Neuchatel, is attached to her roots, more so perhaps than her parents. “I’m curious about my African origins and I want my children to know their heritage through books, music, African meals. These were all things we lost when my grandmother died and that I’ve brought back.” This attachment to two or more countries is something the people of Neuchatel more than tolerate — they actively encourage it.