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Taking lessons from the justice minister

Despite his winning smile, the justice minister was not always convincing. Stefano Iori/OSA

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher has turned his attention to young Swiss expatriates to express his views on foreigners and European integration.

The Saturday “lesson” ended a week of public appearances by the rightwing politician, in which he argued in favour of harsher asylum and immigration policies to be voted on in a referendum next month.

It felt a bit like sitting in a classroom. Instead of a regular teacher there was the Swiss justice minister himself, pacing in front of a packed audience, gesticulating, waving his hands in the air and answering the questions of about 20 youths.

The expatriates met the controversial politician during the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad in Basel at the weekend.

“He seems to know what he is talking about,” says Rolf Brulhart, a 20-year-old from Vancouver, Canada.

Pierre-Alexandre Charton, who lives in France, is taken in by Blocher’s charisma and his down-to-earth style, while Mathilde Da Rui is impressed by his rhetorical skills.

“He seems to act according to his convictions and is determined to stick to them. I think though that he should be aware that there is not just his point of view in Switzerland,” she says.

Moments of slight awkwardness at the beginning of the meeting – in the presence of the media – are soon gone. Blocher throws in a witty remark here and there, tries self-irony and eventually gets the laughs he is after.

He explains with the necessary patience and the gift of a shrewd entertainer, switching between his native guttural German with a heavy Swiss twang and an even less polished version of French. Never mind; the man seems to make himself understood. Only occasionally does he speak with the loud voice of a politician and slips back into jargon.

Free time?

The questions cover a range of topics – agricultural policy, nuclear power, minimum wages to his own career move from businessman to politician – and why he joined the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

Somebody even wants to know how much free time a cabinet minister has: “Some have a lot, I have very little,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Blocher is quick to defend Switzerland as a liberal country with a high percentage of immigrants, and explains why he thinks it best to remain outside of the European Union.

“There would be social problems if we didn’t limit immigration,” Blocher says, adding half-jokingly: “I had to stay at home too but even so, it turned out for the best.”

The meeting becomes more animated as some of the young people insist on challenging what they perceive as his isolationist views. The politician raises his voice and moves closer to the young critics.

Photo opportunity

But in the end, the outspoken justice minister is conciliatory and lets the young expatriates win a point or two. Then it’s time for a group photograph and a brief question and answer session with the journalists.

“It was a very nice meeting and a nice discussion,” the justice minister says of his fourth public appearance in a week.

“I think he’s quite assertive and obviously he doesn’t like foreigners, at least that’s what I picked up from the meeting,” says Joseph Prior-Jones. The 15-year-old from Northampton, Britain, came to Basel after spending time at a Swiss holiday camp. Like many others, he didn’t buy Blocher’s arguments.

Oriana Agolitta who lives in Italy admits she couldn’t really follow Blocher’s explanations. “Up until now I was not into politics at all, but I think I will take an active interest because I want to take part in votes,” she stresses.

“He seems to convince people very easily, but I’m not sure I’d listen to too much of him,” sums up the young Swiss-Canadian, Brulhart.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser in Basel

Registered Swiss expatriates (end 2005):
Total: 634,216 (+11,159 up on 2004)
Europe: 395,397, mainly in France and Germany
Americas: 163,122
Asia: 30,451
South Pacific: 27,229
Africa: 18,017

The annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad took place in Basel from August 18–20.

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) is a lobby group representing the more than 630,000-strong expatriate community.

Several organisations, including AJAS and the Foundation for Young Swiss Abroad offer education and training opportunities for Swiss expatriates and holidays in the home country.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR