While the Swiss government often fails to recognize the crucial importance of its international community, particularly in the Lake Geneva region, the French view it differently. The Lake Geneva area, which includes both Swiss and French territory, is being increasingly treated by France’s neighbouring Rhone-Alpes Region as a key priority. Swiss journalist and writer Daniel Wermus explores why the French are making it very clear why they consider International Geneva crucial and why they are paying more attention to the concerns of non-profit NGOs hampered by the strong Swiss franc.
‘Instead of relocating to Budapast or Singapore, why not try Annemasse instead?’ suggests the mayor of Geneva’s French suburb, the Haute Savoie town of Annemasse. Mayor Christian Dupessey is opening the doors of his town not only to NGOs with interesting activities, but also diplomatic missions and even departments of the United Nations as part of the International Geneva approach. This seeks to promote the region as the global hub for humanitarian, environmental, telecommunications and other related activities.
Overtly marketing itself as Annemasse-Geneva, the French border town overlooking Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc is currently developing its own City of International Solidarity (La Cité de la Solidarité Internationale). This is specifically designed to take into account the construction of the CEVA rail-link, which will connect both sides of the lake via Cornavin-Eaux-Vive-Annemasse. The fast urban railway means that anyone on the southern French side can reach the UN Palais des Nations and Geneva airport from Annemasse in a mere 20 minutes. A direct bus service is already operational linking the town with Geneva’s Cornavin railway station. The CEVA itself is expected to open in 2019.
Annemasse’s attactions are obvious. All offices are rented at far lower ‘soft’ Euro rates than in the higher Swiss franc areas of Geneva. Local restaurants and hotels are also cheaper. Furthermore, the area around Annemasse railway station, which serves some 90,000 inhabitants, half of whom work on the Swiss side, is now known as the ‘Quartier du Grand Genève’. In the same spirit, the Pays de Gex on the French northern side of the lake bordering the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Geneva is pushing its own international presence. While several global NGOs maintain lower cost representational offices in Geneva, they run cheaper and larger operations on the French side, such as in the town of Ferney-Voltaire, which runs regular buses to the airport and the main railway station at Cornavin.
The recent visit to Switzerland by French president François Hollande has brought much of this into perspective. He deliberately stated that Greater Geneva constitutes a major challenge for both Switzerland and France. With more than 850,000 inhabitants, many of them foreign, and the prospect of expanding to over a million in the next few years, the region includes two Swiss cantons (Vaud and Geneva) and two French departments, Ain and Haute Savoie. This makes Greater Geneva the second largest Rhone-Alpes metropole after Lyons, its capital. As one of France’s biggest administrative regions with eight department, Rhones-Alpes is comparable to the size of Switzerland itself. In many ways, this astute regionalization grants Geneva an importance far beyond its size.
Jean-Jack Queyranne, the socialist president of Rhone-Alpes, made a special trip to the shores of Lake Geneva recently for the re-launch of the Greater Geneva initiative. This suffered somewhat of a setback when Swiss-side Genevans refused to co-finance parking lots for frontliers resident in France but working in Geneva in a May, 2014 referendum. This decision stood in stark contrast to a Basel vote, which pointedly backed cross-border parking projects that would ease traffic and reduce pollution.
Queyranne also wished to respond to the anti-frontaliers propaganda demands of the Mouvement Citoyen Genevois (MCG), a populist local party that seeks to reserve jobs for Swiss. ‘We have to finish with the idea of Geneva only being developed as part of a closed circuit. The frontaliers are neither profiteers nor parasites. They contribute as everyone else to the development of this region.’ As observers but also companies and the tourism industry regularly point out, the Swiss economy would collapse were it not for skilled foreign labour.
Queyranne also regards common projects as a ‘revolution for a way of life’, which is essential to this binational region. In this manner, he points out, initiatives such as the new institute for the training of nurses (IFSI) in Ambilly, France, will be used by Geneva and the Rhone-Alpes region, thus resolving at least one serious aspect of the problems that have arisen regarding health policies on both side of the border.
As for International Geneva, the French politician maintains, it urgently needs French support if it is to continue assuring its quality of life and appeal. This includes its ability to compete effectively with cities elsewhere seeking to cash in on the hosting of global institutions. For this to happen, however, there has to be a more dynamic joint approach for dealing with public transport and housing issues, which will reduce Geneva’s constantly worsening traffic jams and real estate tensions.
For both Queyranne and his Swiss counterpart. François Longchamp, president of Geneva’s State Council, the two countries need to strengthen the attractiveness of this key French-speaking region on the forefront of global challenges. For this reason, Annemasse is organizing next October with UNITAR and other UN agencies a forum on public-private partnerships. As part of this initiative, the Forum will launch a specially designed internet tool highlighting the activities of local players involved in international cooperation.
Daniel Wermus is a Geneva-based journalist and writer. He is also a contributing editor of The Essential Edge.