Vote to reunite the Jura fails to inspire

Those against separating the Bernese portion of the Jura demonstrate for their cause ahead of the November 24 vote on whether to create a Greater Jura canton Keystone

Canton Jura was born thirty-five years after a bitter struggle that divided the people of the area, leaving half of them in the new canton and the other half in canton Bern. An upcoming vote could see the area reunited.

This content was published on November 5, 2013 - 11:00

The passions have died down, and the two sides are talking to each other, but as discovered, no one really expects the three southern districts to join canton Jura.

Moutier, a normal Tuesday in October. It’s 12.30pm and the centre of town is practically deserted. The cold, grey weather does little to encourage a stroll around this small industrial town of 7,000 souls located in canton Bern, just on the border of canton Jura.

There are a few posters announcing the forthcoming vote, but there is little apparent excitement.

Moutier embodies many of the tensions associated with the Jura question: it voted by a whisker to remain in canton Bern after three popular votes that inflamed the region during the early 70s. Since 1982, a majority of communal authorities have been separatists.

The town’s mayor of 19 years, Maxime Zuber, is a member of the Autonomous Social Democratic Party, which split off from the official Jura section of the Social Democratic Party which remained steadfastly loyal to canton Bern.

In a consultative vote in 1998, the residents of Moutier once again rejected, by just 48 votes, joining canton Jura.

If the districts of the Bernese Jura as a whole vote “no” to joining canton Jura on November 24 – a scenario widely predicted by polls and observers – the individual communes will have the option of requesting a transfer to the other canton.

Marked lack of interest

To find a little bit of excitement, we head to the train station, which serves the direct Basel-Geneva line. A stronghold of those wanting to join canton Jura, the station hotel proudly shows off its colours: here it’s a universal “yes” vote for November 24. Sitting at a table in the Café de la Gare, 35-year-old Sophie Mertenat has no illusions about the vote, however.

“My parents fought for a separate canton Jura, so it’s an important question for me. But canton Jura doesn’t really excite enthusiasm any more. People aren’t mobilised as strongly as they were back then, and young people have no interest at all in this vote,” she says.

The owner of another café in town, who declined to give his name, is just as sceptical: “In absolute terms, we would have a louder voice in canton Jura. But a lot of people here, even the separatists, are worried that the town will lose its regional court or its hospital if it separates from canton Bern. That will certainly be a deciding factor in the vote”.

Bernese and francophone

Officially bilingual, Bern is a canton with a large German-speaking majority. Just under 8% of the population, about 80,000 people, are French-speaking.

Of these, 50,000 live in the Bernese Jura. Most of the other 30,000 live in Biel, Switzerland’s largest bilingual city.

In Bern’s cantonal parliament, 16 seats of a total 160 are currently occupied by French-speakers.

Since the defeat of Swiss People’s Party member Jean-Pierre Graber in 2011, the Bernese Jura region has not had a representative in the national parliament.

Canton Jura has a population of just over 70,000. It is represented in the national parliament with two senators and two members in the House of Representatives.

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Pragmatism over passion

The revolutionary ideals which led to the creation of canton Jura in 1979 have since given way to more pragmatic arguments, the most fervent militants admit regretfully. But for 60-year-old Martial Schweizer, the general calming of tension is a good thing.

“Over the last 20 years, the divisions have closed over, and people are speaking to each other again,” he says. “Each side had its own shops, its own restaurants, its own associations. When you met someone from the other side, you had to cross the street. Families were split, the atmosphere was suffocating.”

Today, everyone is unanimous in saying that the atmosphere is now much calmer.

“Tensions have eased since 1994 and the creation of the Inter-Jurassian Assembly (AIJ), helped to calm tempers and encouraged bitter opponents to speak to each other.

This explains why the Jura question does not excite people in the same way it did in the last century,” wrote Rémy Chételat, editor in chief of the local Quotidien Jurassien newspaper.

But people are still clearly worried about re-opening old wounds.

“Certainly, we’re not going to see the same kind of passions in Moutier as we did in the 70s, but we are looking forward to moving on to something else,” says another man we meet in the street.

For his part, Emanuel Gogniat, general secretary of the AIJ, sees a significant gap between a large part of the population that is not interested in the vote, and militants “who are just as involved as they were when it call started, sticking firmly to their emotional positions which simply don’t change”.

A long and complicated procedure

On November 24, 2013, the citizens of canton Jura and the Bernese Jura districts will not vote on the creation of a single canton, but on whether a process should be launched that could lead to that. Several more votes will be necessary before a single entity uniting the two regions could be established.

In the most likely outcome, that is a “yes” vote in the Jura and a “no” vote in Bernese Jura, the issue will be considered closed, and the idea of one canton abandoned.

But the Bernese and Jura cantonal governments have agreed that individual communes in the Bernese Jura that so desire to will be able to join canton Jura. Towns will have two years to organise a vote. This option only concerns the Bernese Jura, since no town in the Jura has expressed a desire to revert to canton Bern.

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Swiss troubles

In Bévilard, still in canton Bern, about ten kilometres south-west of Moutier, Marc-Alain Affolter, the boss of a company which manufactures watch parts, speaks of his “visceral attachment” to the canton. He stresses the advantage of being part of a large canton that carries weight on a national level, and the privilege of the particular status given to the region by Bern.

“We are very comfortable in this canton – why would we want to leave?” he says.

But just a few hundred metres away, at the family-owned Helios company, which specialises in making machine parts for diverse industries (watches, cars, medical equipment), the attitude is different. Director Vincent Charpilloz explains why he favours a “yes” vote. “Decision-making authorities located closer to us would be better able to represent our interests – all the more so because canton Jura and the southern districts are closely linked economically.”

Despite the cyclical crises inherent in an industry dependent on external markets and the difficulties facing certain businesses in the region, the Bernese Jura has become more attractive overall in recent decades, Affolter says.

“When all the votes were being held, it was impossible to get qualified workers from outside to move in. The Bernese Jura was almost as troubled as Northern Ireland. Happily, things have changed, and the prospect of working for global businesses is attractive to young qualified specialists,” says Affolter.

Opening up

Taking the Transjura motorway, which links Biel in the south to Boncourt on the northern border with France, we head to Delémont, capital of canton Jura. The last section of the motorway will be finished in 2016 and the gorges, mountain passes and other such tortuous roads of the Jura valleys will soon be a distant memory for drivers in a hurry.

The region’s rail and road isolation, a key driver of separatism in the past, now holds little relevance for the November vote.

The same goes for religion and language, two issues for defining identity which were decisive in the creation of canton Jura.

Certainly here and there, during public debate or in readers’ letters, old pro-Bern (Protestant) militants warn against “joining a canton Jura run by a religious party” (the Christian Democratic Party, whose origins are Roman Catholic). But as far as the political parties are concerned, the difference is at most that their political cultures come from a background of either Catholicism or Protestantism.

As for the fierce defence of the French language and the allergy to speaking Swiss German that was evident during the height of the debate, it has all but disappeared.

“The language argument has changed sides,” says Gogniat. “Now it’s the anti-separatists who are using it. They stress the importance of being part of a large bilingual canton which acts as a bridge between German- and French-speaking Switzerland.”

Indeed, canton Jura has reconciled itself with German-language culture in recent years by creating economic links with Basel and establishing bilingual programmes in schools.

Slim hopes of reunification

In the north, nearly everyone says they are in favour of reunification with the south.

Elisabeth Baume-Schneider, a member of the Jura cantonal government, quoted by the Journal du Jura newspaper, points to the “homogenous geographical and socioeconomic area; the landscape which cements the identity of the Jura; shared micro-technical expertise; frequently the same results in nationwide votes and the existence of more than 70 associations and organisations bridging the two parts of the Jura”.

But few of the locals hold exaggerated expectations.

“A bigger canton would have more weight. But in the Bernese Jura region, there is a lot of prejudice about canton Jura. We won’t convince them,” says a shopkeeper who declines to give his name.

At Place Roland Béguelin de Delémont, named after the canton’s founding father, the same scepticism is also apparent.

“People here don’t really care about this vote. It’s on the other side, in the Bernese Jura, that it will be decided. Unfortunately, their position has been entrenched for a long time,” says another local.

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