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"Switzerland has a xenophobic heritage"

68 per cent of Swiss voters endorsed tightened laws on asylum and immigration

(Keystone)

Leftwing historian Hans-Ulrich Jost tells swissinfo why Sunday's vote on asylum and immigration saw a return to one of the constants of Swiss politics: xenophobia.

The honorary professor at Lausanne University also explains why he thinks Switzerland's humanitarian tradition only applies if it serves the country's interests.

Around 68 per cent of voters endorsed tightened laws on asylum and immigration in Sunday's vote, according to official results. All 26 cantons were also behind the measures, which were approved last year by parliament. Turnout was above average at 48 per cent.

The staunchest supporters of the new laws were in rural areas of German-speaking central and eastern Switzerland. The majorities in French-speaking regions were lower, as is normally the case with votes pertaining to foreigners.

"It is not my victory, but it is an important decision," said Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, from the rightwing Swiss People's Party, who was at the forefront of the reform.

swissinfo: Does this result mean that a rightwing way of thinking is now dominant in Switzerland?

Hans-Ulrich Jost: The People's Party has only managed to enhance – via modern political management – the country's xenophobic heritage. It did this by combining it with several economic problems, such as globalisation, fear of the modernisation of society, the cost of health etc.

swissinfo: You think Switzerland has a xenophobic heritage?

H-U.J.: To put it very simply, since the beginning of the 20th century there have been two or three constants in Swiss politics – one of them is xenophobia.

This had already begun before the First World War with the question of foreigners but also, worse, with the exclusion of certain members of the population. Gypsies for example were described in a federal document at the time as a "plague".

Since then, this theme has never left us. It has been used periodically by one party or another on the right or extreme right – and we arrive today at this very clear verdict.

The humanitarian veil behind which we have always hidden has been torn.

swissinfo: But even so the rest of the world talks of Switzerland's humanitarian tradition, and the winners of Sunday's vote have given assurances that this issue would not be brought into question. Do you think this is just an illusion?

H-U.J.: Not an illusion, but you have to put it in perspective. Even a large German-language newspaper with a somewhat conservative reputation unambiguously wrote that in fact our humanitarian tradition has for some time served national interest.

And that was even true in the time of the Huguenots [in the 16th and 17th centuries], who were Protestant refugees from France. Switzerland had accepted them, but with great reluctance and invited them to move on as soon as possible.

swissinfo: The People's Party has already said it isn't going to stop here – it is going to try to turn the screw tighter on foreigners. Do you think this wave, which you have described as xenophobic, is going to get bigger?

H-U.J.: It has been around for at least 100 years and I certainly think it will continue. This is because we appear to be dealing with a mentality that is deeply embedded in the country.

And as the People's Party is simply after electoral success, it will carry on cutting the cloth for as long as it helps win the party new votes.

swissinfo: The countries surrounding Switzerland – Germany, France, Italy and Austria – are also toughening their political stance towards foreigners. Do you see a specific trait in this area unique to Switzerland?

H-U.J.: There is no one specific thing, except that in Switzerland there is a lot more hypocrisy. One is constantly trying to maintain some sort of discussion on humanitarian tradition and to pretend that Switzerland has a sort of purity and that there's no way the country could fall into the cracks of a degeneration of moral standards.

But we forget that we have already fallen into these cracks. And I think that one of the worst examples of this is our policy towards refugees during the Second World War.

swissinfo-interview: Marc-André Miserez

In brief

It is the ninth time since 1984 that Switzerland's asylum law has been amended. Five of the proposals to tighten the regulations were approved in nationwide votes.

Under a bilateral treaty agreed with Brussels, EU citizens are not subject to immigration restrictions. But there is a sizeable community of people from Balkan countries and Turkey living in Switzerland.

end of infobox

Key facts

Asylum law: 67.7% yes, 32.3% no
Immigration law: 68% yes, 32% no
Turnout: 48.2%

end of infobox

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