Swiss want National Day event at historic site

The Rütli meadow is only accessible by boat Keystone

A majority of Swiss still want an official National Day celebration on the Rütli meadow despite the government's refusal to shoulder security costs.

This content was published on May 27, 2007 - 18:43

President Micheline Calmy-Rey is insisting on giving a speech there on August 1, confirming that she will go to central Switzerland and not bow to pressure from extremists.

A survey in the SonntagsBlick newspaper showed that 57.5 per cent of those polled reckoned that the celebrations should go ahead, while 37.5 per cent were against.

Last week, the Rütli commission called off the event saying there were too many problems. Calmy-Rey and speaker of the House of Representatives, Christine Egerszegi, were both supposed to give speeches.

But the central Swiss cantons bordering Lake Lucerne refuse to allow any boats to depart from their landing stages for the historic spot, which is only accessible by water.

They say they do not want to pay an estimated SFr2 million ($1.63 million) for additional security. Measures are needed because of rightwing extremists, who have travelled en masse to the Rütli in recent years and interrupted National Day speeches.

The cantons did ask the federal authorities to pitch in, but cabinet turned down the request. The SonntagsBlick poll showed though that a majority of people believe the government should shoulder some of the financial burden.

Symbol of Switzerland

The survey also highlighted the fact that nearly two-thirds of Swiss consider the Rütli a symbol of Switzerland, while just six per cent agree with the president of the rightwing Swiss People's Party, Ueli Maurer, who called it a "paddock with cow pats" this week.

Calmy-Rey, who has faced criticism from politicians on the right for her stance, said in an interview with the SonntagsZeitung that giving a speech on the meadow was more than just representing the government. "It's about freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of movement in our country," she said.

The president believes that if she failed to turn up, it would be surrendering to the extremists – a scandalous situation in her view. "It would then be difficult to defend our freedoms elsewhere," she added.

Calmy-Rey told another newspaper, Le Matin Dimanche, that the Rütli belonged to all the Swiss population and must remain open to everyone. "It symbolises for me the creation of a modern, democratic and multicultural Switzerland," she said.

Whether anyone will actually want to listen to her speech is not clear. Just over half of those polled by the SonntagsBlick said they would rather have a celebration without an official speech, with a quarter preferring to have it.

Oath of allegiance

The Rütli is considered the cradle of Switzerland since it is where the founding fathers are believed to have sworn an oath of allegiance in 1291, but it is relatively recent that the meadow has been used by government members to mark National Day.

Historians say it only gained its iconic status in the second half of the 19th century following conflicts such as the relatively bloodless 1847 "Sonderbund" war when the government army defeated forces of an alliance of conservative Catholic cantons.

It finally became a key symbol when August 1 was named National Day in 1891. In 1940 a speech was made there by Switzerland's wartime general expressing Switzerland's right to independence and self-defence.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

In the 13th century, leaders of the three forest cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, met at the Rütli meadow in secret.

They swore an oath of allegiance, considered Switzerland's founding act, in 1291.

There is no evidence that William Tell took part in these meetings, but according to legend, his heroic deeds inspired these men to take action.

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Key facts

An association of concerned Swiss citizens purchased the meadow in 1859.
Their aim was to keep it in its original state.
A year later, the association donated the site to the Swiss government.
The government charged a special commission with the task of administering the meadow.

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