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Switzerland: The meaning of the flag

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[Flag of Switzerland] image by António Martins

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The meaning of the flag (Le sens du drapeau)

From a special issue of the magazine Construire, put online by Migros, a major supermarket chain in Switzerland. The issue was released on 27 July 2000, a few days before the Swiss National Day (1st of August). All texts are in French, and I have translated below the most relevant parts. I have added my own comments between square brackets when required for a better understanding. Words between double squared brackets are original French words. A few selected "important" Swiss citizens have been asked the question: "Which meaning should we give to our national flag?" Note that all interviewed people come from French-speaking Switzerland. Original interviews were made by Joel Guillet.

Nelly Wenger, general manager of Expo.02: "I am fond of our Swiss flag, and I would not like it to be changed. Moreover, red is one of my preferred colours. The flag is also one of the main elements of Expo.02 logo. Its shape and colours evidently reminds me the Red Cross flag and its humanitarian calling. I also appreciate its abstract style of drawing, which allows several interpretations."

Georges-Andre Chevallaz, former President of the Confederation: "A flag cannot be changed the same way a frontage or a coachwork is repainted, according to fad or weird impulses. Among the turbulence of a rapidly changing world, the uncertainties and conflicts in this day and age, the flag must remain a durable emblem uniting the community of the country. [...] The flag incarnates the continuity of our history, but also cohesion and political firmness which should allow us to build the future of a country and a world showing more solidarity and respect of our liberties."

Patrice Mugny, National Councillor [MP elected for 4 years] (Greens, canton of Geneva): "The national flag does not inspire me with any feeling. In fact, I like very much my country, even if I criticize it. But flags in general do not thrill me. They are rallying symbols, with nationalist connotations. I consider them more or less as brass band costumes. They are neither ridiculous nor inspired. I understand that some people are fond of them, even if they don't thrill me. If need be, as a believer Christian, I could put up with the religious symbol of the cross. However, I support a strict separation between Church and State, and I would instead prefer a symbol able to rally all citizens without exception."

Francois Cherix, President of Renaissance Suisse-Europe: "Regarding the Swiss flag as a visual object, my feelings are rather neutral. Indeed, I always imagine it hoisted on the top of a scenic green mountain. For me, it evokes with certainty the drawing [[dessin]] of a country whose plan [[dessein]] I cannot perceive. Neat, clear, precise, balanced, its simple and strong design talks about order, stability and Christian tradition. But I also want to believe that its central cross can be read as a forum for ideas and cultures. If I remember correctly, the national flag is a by-product of the cantonal shield of Schwyz. It bears therefore a heavy heritage, as to be reduced [[reduit]] to be descended from the Alpine recess [[reduit]], until the Swiss Alps will get their vocation of heart of Europe back."

[Cherix's position illustrates the strong antagonism between pro and anti-Europeans in Switzerland. The so-called "forest cantons" (Waldstätte) Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden are considered as emblematic of the Swiss anti-European feelings and withdrawal on the "Alpine recess". They are mostly rural areas living from a highly subsidized traditional agriculture, with a small population but a strong political power. The European debate is a major item of the strong dispute between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland.]

Lova Golovtchiner, comedian and presentor for TSR [Television-Suisse-Romande /French-speaking Television]: "Finally, I find it quite convenient and handy. First, it is easier to memorized than three-striped tricolour flags. With those flags, you never know if green is in the top, red in the middle, or the opposite. The problem for us is the white cross. Do all of us identify with this very present [[presente]], indeed even burdensome [[pesant]] cross? I would suggest to add a charge somewhere. For example a few blue stars on the edges [Probably a "disguised" pro-European statement.] Due to changes in people's attitudes and globalization, there are unfortunately less and less symbol in our current flag. Beforehand, the flag was at least associated with Swissair and the Swiss Bank Union. Nowadays, it is less and less faithful to reality, even if this does not prevent me to be patriotic when required. I feel therefore some fear for its future. Actually, I imagine it will inescapably join Christophe Blocher's toolbox."

[Blocher is a (extreme-)right-wing politician from Zurich. His anti-European and xenophobic program is largely supported in German-speaking Switzerland, especially by the economical establishment – another source of dispute between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland. Blocher uses the same kind of populist toolbox as Haider or Bossi elsewhere.]

Corps Commander Jacques Dousse, Head of the Land Forces: "The national flag is a symbol of belonging to a nation, a country, a motherland! It is an emblem of rallying and cohesion, especially important in Switzerland, a country with 26 cantons and four languages! Through the national flag and anthem, I carry on, with pride and conviction, to have ... Switzerland in my ideas [Pun difficult to translate: "avoir de la suite dans les idees" means to be single-minded (literally, to follow his ideas), and Dousse uses: "avoir de la Suisse dans les idees"]. Official since 1848, our flag finds its origin in the army standards. This origin explains its square shape: with the Vatican flag, it is the single square-shaped flag! If I remember correctly, the white cross on the red field appeared for the first time during the battle of Laupen in 1339. The poet Gonzague de Reynold, from Fribourg, describes our flag as "this banner riddled during the battles of yesteryear, square banner of sovereign peoples, scarlet standard couped with a white cross" [[cette bannière trouee des batailles d'antan, bannière carrée des peuples souverains, l'ecarlate étendard que coupe une croix blanche]]. Other symbol: for liberty and independence of our Switzerland, our forefathers' blood has been shed. Moreover: Our fatherland has always been under God's protection, as recalled for us in the first words of the 1291 Pact: "In the name of Almighty God ...". [The everlasting Pact concluded by people from Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden cantons on the meadow of Rutli in 1291 is considered as the birth act of the Confederation] [and laid down in the Confederate Charter (Bundesbrief), dated "In the beginning of the month of August, AD 1291", archived in Schwyz. – Ed.]

Jacques-Simon Eggly, History teacher and National Councilor [MP elected for 4 years] (Liberals, canton of Geneva): "The Swiss flag inspires me an identity feeling, and, during certain official events, some emotion. I like it because it recalls for me – even if the relations of cause and effect are not evident – my Christian roots and the Red Cross, as well as the country's history [...]"

Yvette Jaggi, President of Pro Helvetia: "I like in the Swiss flag the fact that its charge and field can be treated in two colours, but always evoke peace and humanity. White on a red field, this is the Swiss cross. Red on a white field, this is Red Cross [...] I like to search – and especially to find – the Swiss flag among a forest of national emblems, like in Strasbourg, in front of the Council of Europe. Its presence symbolizes our belonging to the international community." [Another political statement. There is currently in Switzerland a great debate about adhesion to international institutions such as UNO, with always the same opposition between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland.]

Rene Scheidegger, Romand [French-speaking] coordinator for ASIN (Association pour une Suisse independante et neutre / Association for an independent and neutral Switzerland): "Being attached to my country and having been living about 20 years abroad, the Swiss flag inspires me with pride, respect, and gratitude. Pride to belong to a nation which has been able to find itself an envied place in the world; respect for an independent and neutral country, whose open-mindedness is proved by a high rate of foreigners, an important humanitarian activity and an extensive community abroad. The red colour is the blood shed by the Swiss mercenaries abroad. And the white cross – reference to Christ cross – is the symbol of neutrality (there is a similarity in design with the Red Cross flag). I like this flag, simple and respected worldwide, whatever may say some rootless 'globalists' [[mondialistes]] to follow fashion. It is the symbol rallying citizens [female and male – "citoyennes et citoyens"] sharing the same values."

Ivan Sache, 19 September 2000