From local mayor to Swiss president

The 2004 Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, is currently economics minister but has held political posts at every level.

This content was published on January 5, 2004 - 08:25

A native French and German speaker, Deiss began his career as a local politician in canton Fribourg in the early 1980s.

As a student, he took a degree in economics and social science and completed a doctorate at Fribourg University before heading to Britain to undertake postgraduate research at King’s College, Cambridge.

In a recent interview with swissinfo, Deiss explained how student life shaped his interest in politics.

“My immediate family was not involved in politics, so my interest stemmed from my time at school and university in Fribourg and particularly in Cambridge at the time of Harold Wilson,” he said, “when I had the opportunity to observe British political life.”

“What I admired was the capacity of people like Wilson and Charles de Gaulle to impose their ideas and make progress. I was very impressed by the personalities who made this [kind of] politics - whether they were more on the left or the right side of the picture.”

Home ties

Deiss has maintained close links with his home canton of Fribourg throughout his political career.

He entered politics in 1981 as a representative of the Christian Democratic Party in Fribourg’s cantonal parliament. He was later elected to serve as the parliament’s president.

In 1982, the economics professor was also elected mayor of his home village, Barberêche, a position he held until 1996.

Deiss entered national politics in 1991, when he took up a seat in the Swiss parliament. But he had to wait until the end of that decade to enter government.

Cabinet election

Deiss was elected to the Swiss cabinet on March 11, 1999 and took up the post of foreign minister.

Asked how he manages to juggle the demands of a government post, Deiss revealed to swissinfo his recipe for success.

"First, do not try to know everything about your department. If you know ten per cent, it is enough. Secondly...delegate as much as you can," he said.

Highlights during his tenure as foreign minister included steering Switzerland's entry into the United Nations in 2002 and spearheading the negotiations which led to a first round of bilateral agreements with the European Union.

Portfolio change

Deiss changed portfolios on January 1, 2003, when he became economics minister.

One of his main goals has been to push the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the vast majority of the 300,000 companies registered in Switzerland.

Before becoming a cabinet minister, he also found time to teach at the universities of Lausanne and Geneva and at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

But it will not be all work and no play for the new president. During his spare time, Deiss says he enjoys hiking in the mountains and being with his family. He is married with three sons.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

Key facts

Joseph Deiss biography:
Born on January 18, 1946 in Fribourg.
Educated at the universities of Fribourg and Cambridge before becoming a career academic in economics.
1981: Enters politics as Christian Democratic Party representative in canton Fribourg.
1982 to 1996: Mayor of Barberêche.
1991: Elected to the Swiss parliament.
1999: Elected to the Swiss cabinet; takes up post as foreign minister.
2003: Changes portfolio and becomes economics minister.
2004: Takes up ceremonial post of Swiss president.

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