Politicians seek boost for minority languages


A renewed effort is being made in parliament to try to increase the number of speakers of official minority languages in the Swiss federal administration.

This content was published on December 6, 2005 - 10:02

The debate comes amid increasing criticism that German speakers dominate - leaving French, Italian and Romansh under-represented in senior positions.

The latest proposal wants to ensure that the minority language speakers are given priority over an equally well-qualified native German speaker if they apply for a top job in the federal administration.

The House of Representatives is widely expected to endorse the proposal this week, in line with a decision earlier this year by the other parliamentary chamber, the Senate.

The cabinet has also given its approval in principle, saying it intends to encourage candidates with French, Italian and Romansh mother tongue for senior positions until they are represented according to their share of the population.

Within the Swiss population, German speakers make up more than 72 per cent, while native French speakers account for 21 per cent, ahead of the Italians with 4.3 per cent and the Romansh with 0.6 per cent.

Too much German

The Federal Personnel Office said that overall the four national languages are represented fairly in the federal administration, which has 37,000 employees on its payroll.

But Helvetia Latina, a lobby group for the promotion of Romance languages, claims that German speakers in top posts were over-represented by ten per cent in 2003.

The organisation said German speakers in senior management often preferred to hire staff with the same mother tongue as their own.

"I'm concerned to see that the German language has tightened its grip on the federal administration," said Claude Ruey, president of Helvetia Latina.

This view is upheld by the fact that 96 per cent of the translators in the administration work from German, and that the German way of thinking is clearly reflected in important documents of the state, the lobby group said.

Not enough Italian

But Vasco Dumartherey of the Federal Personnel Office says latest figures show a less gloomy picture.

Among the top managers in the federal administration, only the Italian-speaking minority is clearly at a disadvantage.

"There is just one native Italian speaker at the helm of a federal office," said Dumartherey.

While they are also under-represented in the high salary brackets, their number is almost double the nationwide percentage among the lower salary earners.

The native Italian speakers have not been represented in the seven-member cabinet since 1999. And what is more, the newly-elected government spokesman does not speak Italian.

No sanctions

The proposal by the former Neuchâtel senator, Jean Studer, is the latest in a series of attempts to achieve a fair balance among the four national languages in the federal administration.

There are also calls to hire only staff for senior positions who speak at least two Swiss languages and have a passive knowledge of a third national language.

Helvetia Latina has complained that the situation has not improved despite all the efforts over the past few years, because the measures lack legal clout.

But it is questionable whether or not sanctions or quotas would be the answer. Mariette Bottinelli of the Federal Personnel Office says there are other ways of boosting the number of employees from minority language groups.

They include special recruitment drives at universities and other campaigns for native French, Italian or Romansh speakers to settle in the mainly Swiss-German-speaking region around the capital, Bern.

swissinfo, Olivier Pauchard

Key facts

Swiss residents: German speakers 72.5%, French 21%, Italian 4.3%, Romansh 0.6%, other languages 1.6%.
Federal administration, lower salary brackets: German 68.9%, French 18.1%, Italian 8.4%, Romansh 0.3%, other languages 4.2%.
Federal administration, senior positions: German 72.2%, French 22.2%, Italian 4.4%, Romansh 0.6%, other languages 0.1%.

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In brief

Helvetia Latina was set up in 1980 to promote the French, Italian and Romansh languages and cultures in the federal administration.

The organisation currently has a record 350 members, including parliamentarians from these language regions.

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