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Humble leadership Down-to-earth Swiss president raises eyebrows

man in suit sitting on ground

Mister fancy pants? No, sir! Swiss President Alain Berset takes a casual seat in New York.

(© KEYSTONE / PETER KLAUNZER)

Images of the Swiss president sitting on the ground in New York City have sparked a conversation on social media. But for the Swiss, it’s just business as usual. 

During last week’s General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, Swiss President Alain Berset decided to cool his well-maintained heels and take a curbside seat. The sight of an important man sitting on the ground grabbed the attention of the social media world – especially in Africa. 

One blogger used the example to criticize the Ugandan president:

Berset meme

man in chair and man on ground

As the image made the rounds, users kept adding to the story, saying that during the UN assembly, Berset was cooking his own meals in a small apartment shared with his staff. A spokesman later set the record straight, telling Swiss news portal watson.chexternal link that Berset had stayed in a hotel, as usual.

When not out and about inspiring memes, Berset – who holds the rotating presidency of the seven-member Swiss cabinet – serves as the home affairs minister. And he’s not the only Swiss leader who isn’t worried about getting his pants dirty. 

A few weeks ago, federal councillor Doris Leuthard (below, right) was spotted sitting on the steps of a crowded Swiss train. Swiss public television, SRF, snapped a photo and joked that maybe she should bike to the next Arena political programme – a reference to the bicycle initiativeexternal link up for discussion.

Leuthard on steps

woman on steps

Yes, of course she takes the train – and not just because she’s the transport minister, as well as head of the environment, energy and communications dossiers. Meanwhile, Berset enjoyed last week’s ride from New York to Philadelphia.

And a few years back, ex-colleague Didier Burkhalter – then-president and foreign affairs minister – stood out from the Twitter crowd while waiting for the train, unaccompanied by security. This is the norm for high-ranking Swiss politicians, and in the capital, Bern, it’s not unusual to find yourself riding the tram or shopping with a federal councillor.

But eschewing bodyguards can be risky. In 2012, Micheline Calmy-Rey – who had recently retired from her post as foreign affairs minister – was attacked by a man who pushed a pie into her face in Geneva. 

Of course in potentially risky situations, Swiss leaders have a security detail. But it’s up to them whether they’d like to sit on the ground.

Presidential explainer Switzerland’s 18 living ex-presidents: a political record

Eighteen former Swiss presidents are still alive. What does this record say about the country’s political stability and leadership? 

​​​​​​​You can contact the author on Twitter @SMisickaexternal link.

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