Language selection


How To Explain Switzerland’s Linguistic Harmony?

To be presented at the debate “La Suisse – et maintenant ?
Plurilinguisme et cohesion
” [Switzerland – and Now? Multilingualism and Unity]

National Museum, Zurich, Switzerland
November 2, 2021

Stéphane Dion
Ambassador of Canada to Germany and Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe

It is remarkable to note that, in the Swiss federation, political life is not fundamentally structured around homogenous language groups, each one within their own entrenched positions. Although Switzerland is certainly not immune to language tensions, there has been no major upheaval in this respect. The only exception to this linguistic harmony is the issue of Jura. The fact is that language conflicts have not developed across Switzerland as a whole. The country’s cohesion is strong and no major secessionist movement has taken shape in any of the language groups. Switzerland does not have an equivalent to the Québécois separatist movement in Canada, or the Basque or Catalan separatist movements in Spain. There are also no regional centrifugal pressures like those that dominate political life in Belgium.

In Switzerland, in contrast to what is happening in Canada, Spain or Belgium, no major political party is organized on a regional or language basis. The most significant regionalist party is the right‑wing populist party Lega dei ticinesi, which received 16.4% of votes in Ticino during the 2019 national council elections. One can also mention the Mouvement Citoyens Genevois. Switzerland’s major parties represented in the federal council are present in the three linguistic regions and covet the electors in each of them; therefore, they do not base their electoral strategies on language issues. There are nuances to be made, of course, as some parties are more firmly established in certain regions than in others, but they are striving to establish themselves across the country. We do not find in Switzerland the equivalent of a regionalist party as strong as the Bloc Québécois, which was once the first opposition party in the House of Commons of Canada and is currently the second. Switzerland has escaped the fate of Belgium, which no longer has a national party, since no party is anymore able to elect representatives in the two major linguistic regions of the country, Flanders and Wallonia.

However, the Swiss people know that their country has not always been so harmonious. For centuries, the country was affected by a number of major religious conflicts. These conflicts between Catholics and Protestants deteriorated into civil war in 1531, 1656, 1712 and 1847. After the Constitution was adopted in 1848, and amended in 1874 and 1999, religious peace prevailed in Switzerland. However, the same religious appeasement among Christians occurred elsewhere in Europe.  What is unique about Switzerland as a multilingual country is that language did not take over from religion as a source of conflict. Some schools of thought may be more or less popular among the various language groups of Switzerland, but these are trends rather than antagonisms.

The political scientist Karl Deutsch sees Switzerland as “a paradigmatic case of political integration.” One must therefore explain this fortunate Swiss case.

A first explanation is the undeniable success of Switzerland, in particular as regards the standard of living, even in comparison with its neighbors. The Italian-speaking Swiss have little concrete incentive to join Italy, or the French-speaking Swiss to France, or the German-speaking Swiss to Germany. On the contrary, they have good reasons to value their common achievements.

Other explanations have been put forward. The Canadian sociologist Maurice Pinard identified these in a recently published book entitled Nationalist Movements Explained. Comparisons from Canada, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland.Footnote 1In short, he suggests three explanations — which I believe are sound — although, I would add a fourth explanation of my own.

First, with the exception of Italian‑speaking Swiss who are predominantly Catholic, religious differences have not coincided with language divisions. Since the Swiss speaking French, Romansh, German or different related dialects were found among Catholics and Protestants, they were able to develop long habits of cooperation among themselves, even in times of religious clashes.

Second, Switzerland has experienced an exceptional linguistic stability. Over five decades, from 1970 to 2018, there has been a slight decrease in the percentage of German‑speaking Swiss (dropping from 66% to 62%), Italian‑speaking Swiss (from 11% to 8%) and Romansch‑speakers (from 0.8% to 0.5%). At the same time, the percentage of French‑speakers increased from 18% to 23%. The percentages of German, French and Italian speakers have changed little over the years both at a national level and within each canton. This has calmed concerns and helped to establish relationships of trust between the Swiss. This is not the same experience for French‑speaking Canadians. Although 95% of Quebec residents can speak and understand French, the percentage of Canadians whose mother tongue is French is dropping, from 29% in 1951 to 21% in 2016. French‑speaking Canadians face unparalleled assimilating pressures from English, the top international language, which is ubiquitous in North America. French‑speaking Canadians do not live in a multilingual environment, like Europe. They feel isolated within their vast English‑speaking continent. This feeling of isolation in Quebec fuels support to strengthen the political status of the only Francophone government in the Americas. This feeling of isolation does not drive all residents of Quebec toward separatism, far from it. In fact, the vast majority of Quebeckers declare themselves as proudly Canadian. However, this explains why Quebec’s specific concerns have deeply affected the Canadian political system.

Third, in Switzerland, there is a relative equality of economic and social standard of living between the Swiss of different language groups, primarily the two main groups (German‑speaking and French‑speaking Swiss). This also became the case in Canada, where Catholic French‑speaking Canadians have essentially caught up to the economic level of English‑speaking Canadians, thanks to secularization and improved education, but historical grievances continue to affect people’s mentalities.

These three factors — a long‑standing practice of cooperation, linguistic stability and economic equality — have encouraged linguistic harmony among the Swiss people. I would propose a fourth factor, which I had suggested in 1995 when I was a (still young) political science professor, in a document entitled Belgique et Canada : une comparaison de leur chance de survie: the absence of a linguistically isolated federated entity.Footnote 2

Indeed, Switzerland has seventeen mainly German-speaking cantons, four French-speaking, one Italian-speaking, three recognized as bilingual and one trilingual. From a demographic perspective, the weight of German‑speakers (those who indicate German or Swiss German as their main language) is predominant. They represent approximately 62% of Swiss citizens compared to about 23 percent of French speakers, 8 percent Italian speakers and 0.5 per cent Romansh speakers. However, with three official languages, four national languages, twenty-six cantons, three thousand municipalities so full of responsibilities to the point of forming the most powerful municipal level in the world, the most collegial federal executive in the world, and more frequent referendums than in all the other democracies combined, the Swiss federation features a plurality of actors, alliances and combinations varying according to the challenges and issues. Thus, the unequal encounter between German‑speaking Switzerland and the rest of the country is avoided, so that language division has never become the dominant cleavage in political life and in the party system. The Swiss example is rather that of a federation with varied cleavages, sometimes the economic base, sometimes the rural-urban axis, sometimes the generational differences, instead of always following the linguistic dividing line.

In a federal union that brings together two or three language groups, it is best if none of these groups are significantly present in only one federated state. When each language group is spread out among various federated states, coalitions within the union are made and broken based on issues and differences that are not necessarily language‑based. Language and cultural divisions are, therefore, of a much more relative significance. The victimizing myth of the isolated, discriminated and misunderstood language community has difficulty taking root in such a context. This is Switzerland's good fortune.

Canada is a decentralized federation made up of ten provinces and three territories. The province with the largest population (and one of the richest) is Ontario, representing 39% of the population and thus is not in a position to impose a monopoly. This balancing factor promotes the stability of the union. However, Quebec’s linguistic isolation is a historical legacy, because, although there are French‑speaking Canadians elsewhere in Canada (such as Acadians), Quebec is the only province that is primarily French‑speaking. If other provinces like New Brunswick, Manitoba or Alberta, were primarily French‑speaking, chances are that the Canadian union would be as strong as the Swiss union.

Within this system of ten provinces, Quebec often wins by forming alliances with the other large industrial province (Ontario), or with provinces that, like itself, are not as rich as the national average and demand more regional redistribution, or with provinces in the West that, like Quebec, support international economic free trade. However, Quebec feels alone in terms of language, culture and identity. If a province that is richer than the national average, or not as industrialized, or oil‑based, were French‑speaking, then Quebec would be able to make alliances based on economic, ecological or social issues with English‑speaking provinces and not always with this French‑speaking province. Not only would the feeling of isolation be reduced, but the significance of the issues of language and culture would become relative. However, we cannot remake history: Quebec’s linguistic and cultural uniqueness is a feature of the Canadian union, which must be taken into account, as it has been acknowledged by the Supreme Court, the Canadian Parliament and the Government of Canada.

The linguistic question thus raises different issues in Switzerland and in Canada, but the objective is the same: to show that linguistic diversity can be a strength for a country, that populations of different languages can, by uniting, rank among the most prosperous countries in the world. The US News 2020 Best Countries Rankings ranks Switzerland and Canada as the top countries in the world. There is no doubt that multilingualism within our two countries is one of the reasons for our success and a condition for an even better future.

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