This past week has not been a good one for Switzerland’s image abroad. The American TV and film star Oprah Winfrey went very public with accusations that she was the victim of racism in an exclusive store in Zurich, although she later played down the implications of the accusation. Whether or not the charges are true or merely publicity for her and her new film, the Swiss Tourism office was forced to apologize, which they later said might have been premature. On top of that, the international media was reporting that Bremgarten in the Swiss canton of Aargau had introduced several "exclusion zones" for asylum seekers, including public swimming pools and sports facilities.
Nicolas Bideau is the Head of Presence Switzerland, the person primarily responsible for Switzerland’s image abroad. The seasoned diplomat - educated in China, having served in the Swiss Embassy in India, former diplomatic advisor to Pascal Couchepin during his Presidency of the Confederation as well as the former Mr. Cinema Swiss - is reported to be vacationing on a Greek island.
Assuming he has gotten the news, what must he be thinking? How many visitors are there in Switzerland a year? How many of them are African-Americans? How many have been the victims of racism? (Think of the number of African-American musicians who have performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival over the years.) Why Oprah Winfrey, of all people, if the story is true?
During the recent scandals concerning the United States surveillance program, it has been noted that over 800,000 people now have security clearances in the U.S. Of those 800,000, is it really surprising that a Bradley Manning or an Edward Snowden would leak something? The percentages for something like that to happen are rather high, just as some form of racism or “misunderstanding” could happen to any tourist at any shop, restaurant or hotel in Switzerland.
But Oprah Winfrey? The owner of the shop has implied that the star was vexed because she was not recognized by the salesperson. I am vexed because I cannot imagine anyone producing a handbag that sells for over 30,000 francs, let alone someone actually buying an item like that. I am also somewhat miffed that Oprah, who comes from humble origins and who sells herself as a woman of the people, would make a fuss about something that happened in such an exclusive store. After all, Tina Turner lives in the same area and has never reported any incident of racism. (OK, I am also vexed that as I great fan of Tina I was not invited to her wedding.)
What is Nicolas Bideau to do to repair Switzerland’s image and to prevent future similar incidents? Apologies have been sent to Oprah and reported worldwide. As for the swimming pool incident, Simonetta Sommaruga did her best with the Swiss press, but the reputation of Switzerland as being refugee adverse remains although the number of asylum seekers per person in Switzerland is extremely high. Indeed, there is a positive image of Switzerland that needs serious promotion. Good luck to Mr. Bideau when he returns from vacation. Positive promotion, like positive neutrality, is the best policy.
As for President Obama with Manning and Snowden, that’s much simpler: Reduce the number of documents classified top secret as well as the number of people with top security clearance. Transparency is the best policy; it is the cornerstone of true democracy and rule of the people and by the people. President Obama declared in May, referring to the War on Terror, “This war, like all wars, must end.” The implications of that declaration have yet to be operationalized.
August 15, 2013