The recent kerfuffle surrounding the new Swiss minister of the economy Guy Parmelin’s command of English has generated numerous commentaries on the role of English in a country that has four national languages, but not English. Parmelin’s declaration; “I can English understand but je préfère répondre en français pour être plus précis” was even the subject of an article on page 2 of the New York Times. Is it necessary for important Swiss politicians to be fluent in English?
English is not one of the four Swiss national languages. There have been heated debates about whether students in schools should learn English as their first foreign language instead of German for the French region and French for Swiss Germans. English, after all, is the primary international language, at least for the moment. But, the study of at least two of the official languages remains an important symbol of national identity. (After all, there is no translation in the Conseil aux Etats.)
While it may seem that I am biased in this discussion, it does seem obvious that Swiss politicians dealing with international issues should be able to communicate with their respondents in English, assuming that all the major political figures can converse informally without translators. Thus, I assume that Mrs. Merkel and Emmanuel Macron chat in English, fully realizing that Jacques Chirac, who spoke perfect English, spoke French on formal occasions to emphasize the importance of the French language. (I also assume roosters still crow in French.)
When Guy Parmelin was Minister of Defense, there was no major discussion about his language abilities. His primary function was to deal with the Swiss army, not with the ministers of defense at NATO meetings. (Because of political pressure from the Swiss People’s Party, few Swiss defense ministers have attended high level meetings in Brussels.) However, given the rotating Swiss presidency, one year Mr. Parmelin will be president of the Confederation with all the official visits and protocol that entails where English will be a definite plus.
What about Geneva, especially International Geneva with its 30,000 international civil servants? Much of, if not all communication in the international organizations and NGO’s takes place in English. There is a fascinating history of English language bookstores in Geneva – Encounter and Off the Shelf – that have failed. There have also been numerous journals and magazines that have disappeared. Global Geneva is the latest iteration and there are some recent attempts to produce bilingual websites English/French.
But Geneva politicians have never been called out on their command of English. Granted the president of the Republic and Canton of Geneva is the only elected official responsible for International Geneva. Since the voters have no say who will be chosen as president among the Conseil d’Etat, is it unreasonable to ask all the major candidates to speak in English? And, even if only one of the seven elected directly deals with International Geneva, shouldn’t all the candidates have some knowledge, just like the Chancelière or the Chief of Protocol. In an international cosmopolitan city, English should be a requirement for the highest elected officials just as it is for all the diplomats and international civil servants.
Now, you will ask, since I have lived in Switzerland for 45 years, why don’t I write in French. If I criticize Guy Parmelin for not speaking English, you can criticize me for not writing in French. You are right.
Bonnes fêtes et bonne année