Canton Geneva wants to stop crossborder pupils from attending its schools, despite a court decision that went against this. The move has angered many Swiss living in neighbouring France, who feel this is discrimination.
Rents are notoriously high in Geneva, which is why around 25,000 Swiss – 14% of the Geneva electorate – have opted to live in the departments of Ain or Haute-Savoie just over the border in nearby France. Most of them maintain close ties to their canton of origin, working there and paying a large part of their taxes to the cantonal authorities.
But many expats are feeling disillusioned and abandoned by the canton, accusing it of considering them “second class” citizensexternal link. One of the main reasons: the canton’s decision, made last year, to limit access to Geneva state schools for their children.
The move will be continued for the start of the next school year in summer 2019, according to the local newspaper Tribune de Genève.external link
In fact, the rules have been tightened even further: unless a pupil has already started school or has a sibling in a school, no child living outside the canton will be accepted in future into the compulsory school system in Geneva. Before that, there were caps on the number of children allowed to start school.
The canton says the decision has been taken in the children’s best interests. “We are convinced that enrolling children into schools at the place of residence allows children - and their parents - to better integrate, also socially,” explained Antonio Hodgers, the cantonal government president.
We are convinced that enrolling children into schools at the place of residence allows children - and their parents - to better integrate, also socially.
Antonio Hodgers, Geneva government presidentEnd of quote
“This regulation has been discussed with the French state and at the [local French] prefectoral level. We remain very much in favour of schooling at the place of residence.”
At present, almost 1,800 pupils living in France attend school in Geneva. More than 80% of them are Swiss. The canton’s education departmentexternal link said mid-January that it had already received “several dozen” requests for enrolling crossborder children for the new school year ahead. The deadline was the end of January.
Loss of confidence
Geneva’s move has caused consternation among the affected parents. “They have the impression that they – and their children – are being denied the right to establish strong ties to their canton of origin. There is a total lack of confidence in the Geneva government,” said Paolo Lupo, president of the Genevans without a border (Genevois sans frontièreexternal link), an association which defends the interests of Swiss living in neighbouring France.
The canton’s decision seems all the incomprehensible given that its first attempt to limit crossborder pupils was declared invalid by a cantonal court. In response to an appeal by more than 100 families, it ruled in May 2018 that the canton had gone against the principle of equal treatment for all, because some admission requests were considered under the old rules and some under the new ones. But the court did not rule on the substance of the case.
Geneva lawyer Romain Jordanexternal link, who is monitoring the situation closely, expects more appeals by parents of rejected pupils once school allocations for 2019/2020 are communicated. Last year, the expert in international and constitutional law published a legal opinion which raised doubts over the legality of rejecting crossborder pupils.
A government divided
Furthermore, the government’s decision is a violation of the bilateral accords between Switzerland and the European Union. “The accord on the free movement of people outlaws any discrimination based on the place of residence, including in schooling. If there is proven proper integration into the host country or the country of work, the government cannot decide where children go to school in place of families,” Jordan said.
The accord on the free movement of people outlaws any discrimination based on the place of residence, including in schooling.
Romain Jordan, lawyer
It’s also against the Geneva Constitution, which guarantees the right to a free, universal education to all the canton’s citizens and taxpayers, he added. Jordan also pointed to the unsound legal basis for the decision. “Given that it seriously restricts a fundamental right, this change should be enshrined in law and not just be a simple regulation,” he said.
It’s an interpretation which has not fallen on deaf ears within Geneva’s government. Swissinfo.ch understands that the Geneva cantonal minister for education, the Social Democrat Anne Emery-Torracintaexternal link, is against the new regulation. She is said to have had serious concerns over the legitimacy of refusing school entry to children whose parents are Geneva taxpayers. But she was in the minority when the government voted on the issue.
Hodgers, the government’s head, has rejected accusations of discrimination, because “Swiss and the French living in France are treated in an equal manner”. He added that parents living in Geneva “cannot freely choose where their children go to school”.
The matter is likely to go to court. In the meanwhile, the mayor of the French border commune of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, Antoine Veilliard, has made his feelings clear. He has threatened to go to the European Commission, the French Ministry of National Education and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs over the issue.
Veilliard suspects that the Geneva government has financial motives for its decision, a charge which the canton has rejected. He says the move would allow the canton to save almost CHF3.4 million ($3.4 million) a year. This would mean an increased burden on the French border communes, already struggling with the heavy investments needed to deal with a massive influx of new inhabitants, both Swiss and French, he says.
“Geneva only repays a third of the taxes from the revenues of crossborder workers back to French communities. This does not allow us in any way deal with the never-ending race to make investments due to the hyper-growth in Geneva,” Veilliard recently told swissinfo.chexternal link.
Lupo, from the Swiss crossborder association, fears the situation will negatively impact the efforts made to regularise the situation of the estimated 20,000 Swiss living illegally on French soil. “Many parents living in neighbouring France are going to be tempted to keep a fake legal address in Switzerland so they can send their children to school [there],” he warned.
You can contact the article's author on Twitter: @samueljabergexternal link