4 January 2021
The Swiss artist Ben Vautier exhibited his art by the claim “La Suisse n’existe pas” at the world exhibition in Seville (1992).
Switzerland exists, no doubt, but what about the Romandy or La Suisse romande, the French-speaking part of Switzerland?
Although religion plays a less critical role nowadays, the Catholic and Protestant dividing lines crisscross through the cantons. The economic and political situation and history also differ from canton to canton.
The Romandy is a nineteenth-century creation, first used in 1837 by the Societé d’histoire de la Suisse romande. The term Suisse romande was used in the Interbellum (1918-1939) by German-speaking Switzerland.
The First World War strengthened the identity in the Romandy. French-speaking Switzerland supported France, German-speaking Switzerland was in favour of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
L’Orchestre de la Romande was founded in 1918. The increase of French newspapers, radio and later TV contributed to the awareness and la Suisse romande became an institutionalized and collective identity.
The Romandy consists of six cantons: Jura, Valais (Wallis), Genève (Genf), Vaud (Waadt), Fribourg (Freiburg) and Neuchâtel (Neuenburg).
Jura (see also Swiss Spectator 16 February 2020)
The canton Jura exists since 1979. Until the French occupation in 1792-1798, the territory belonged to the Prince-Bishop of Basel. The area was assigned to Bern and Basel-Stadt (later Basel-Landschaft, in 1833) in 1815 (Congress of Vienna).
History does not end in 1979. There is an ongoing discussion in some French-speaking communes in the Jura Bernois to join the canton of Jura.
A (new) referendum will take place in Moutier in 2021 (see Swiss Spectator 15.2.2019, Mexit in Switzerland).
Fribourg and Valais
The complication is the bilingualism of Fribourg and Valais (Swiss Spectator 16.10.2020). Freiburg, founded by the German-speaking Dukes of Zähringen in the twelfth century, became more and more Fribourg, in particular after the conquest of French-speaking territories (1474-1536).
Geneva has always focused on keeping Savoy out and conquering Chablais, Gex and Faucigny. The difficult relationship between the bishop of Geneva and the Protestant city council after the Reformation complicated the situation.
Neuchâtel was a sovereign county, then belonged to German and French dynasties (1395-1706). The Prussian king became Prince of Neuchâtel in 1707 (formally until 1857).
Vaud has never been independent until 1803. The area was first governed by Savoy and then by Bern (Protestant) and Fribourg (Catholic), hence the patchwork of languages and religions in this region. Vaud became an administrative unit in the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) and a canton in 1803 (Mediationsakte)
The cantons of the Suisse romande have their language and some cultural features in common and there is even the Tour de Romandie nowadays.
There are also some identical voting patterns in the French-speaking cantons. The urban- and rural differences seem more important nowadays. The same development takes place in the German-speaking cantons.
The French-speaking part of Switzerland has never been a cultural and political unity and the history shows a different path as well. The cantons and the communes are still the most relevant political unities in terms of identity.
(Source: C. Meuwly e.a. (Red.), Histoire vaudoise, Lausanne 2015), F. Walter, Une histoire suisse, Neuchâtel, 2016).