Protest in Switzerland

A silent demonstration for animal rights in front of the Eglise Saint-Laurent, a protestant church in a pedestrian-only zone in Lausanne, Switzerland, that features a large photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., on its facade. April 6, 2019.

A silent demonstration for animal rights in front of the Eglise Saint-Laurent, a protestant church in a pedestrian-only zone in Lausanne, Switzerland, that features a large photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., on its facade. April 6, 2019.

One thing I consistently read in all the books and all the web guides and heard from all the people in Lausanne who helped us to get organized and acclimated when we arrived: The Swiss don’t like direct conflict. They avoid fusses, they shy away from drama, they like to work through official channels (to the tune of calling the police on a neighbor rather than simply asking that she keep the music volume down, even).

They don’t, in short, protest.

And then, after living in Lausanne for nine months—two of which I spent mostly back in the United States—I encountered three separate large-scale protests: A march for environmental causes in early April 2019, a student walk-out and march for the environment in May 2019, and a massive women’s strike in June 2019. We’ve seen several small protests as well (including one protesting wolf hunting in the Alps, interestingly—alas, I didn’t get pictures of that one).

The first two I happened upon. I hadn’t heard of the first protest; I encountered it by surprise on my way back from running errands one Saturday midday. The second, I’d heard about happening elsewhere in Europe—and possibly even the United States—as the young woman who launched the children’s environmental movement has received accolades far and wide (including on more than one of the podcasts I receive). The third, I’d seen mentioned for months via stickers and posters affixed to city-wide public spaces; I had to see it for myself as soon as I could on the day of the event.

Curious about all this protesting from a reputedly protest-shy population, I reached out to Nicola Winzenreid, a cross-cultural communication trainer who assists people and companies in turning cultural diversity into advantage. Arnaud’s university introduced us to Nicola shortly after we arrived in Lausanne. Nicola specializes in delivering programs on a variety of cultural topics, including expatriation and repatriation, understanding Swiss culture, and leading and managing in a global context. (For more on Nicola’s work—which is invaluable if you plan a move to Switzerland or plan to do business or bring or send employees here—visit her website.)

Yes, the Swiss Protest

Per Nicola, the Swiss march about once a year, on average, and especially on May 1, a day celebrating labor. On May 1, different groups of employee types—often organized into unions—use marches to highlight support for specific labor demands.

Aside from labor-related marches, Nicola mentioned historic precedent for more grassroots, social-causes protests, including a protest demanding more police presence during daytime hours to combat a prevalence of drug dealers in the city center and a 1991 women’s march—the country’s first march for women’s rights. (The Gréve des Femmes 2019 took place on the same date, in commemoration.)

When Protests Effect Change

From what I gathered from my reading and my conversation with Nicola, the Swiss may not see a conflict or contradiction between protesting and going through official channels to effect change. In fact, the Swiss may see a public march or protest as a form of official channel—especially when a law already exists and action on it or enforcement of it just doesn’t move quickly enough to satisfy them.

For most issues on which marches take places, the books have laws already, Nicola said. In fact, most of the time, the laws agree with the protesters’ complaints. Rather than asking for something new, the protesters march to show their elected officials that a large swath of their constituents cares strongly about the issue in question and wants them to act more quickly and more seriously to enforce the law or address the problem through the laws already in place.

Fortunately for the Swiss, it sounds like the government pays attention.

In the case of the drug dealers, the police stepped up officer presence in the city center until 10 p.m. each night, and the drug dealers dissipated. The 2019 women’s march has already prompted discussion on how to more quickly institute action around paternity leave and equal opportunities for women. As to the environment, let’s all hope the Swiss government has discussions underway on how to address the severe problems faced on that front as well. Clearly, their constituents feel strongly about climate-related issues.

What Makes a Protest Swiss?

Based on my observations, the Swiss protest peaceably. Other than orderly chants and some music, the noise levels stayed low. I saw limited, if any, resulting graffiti and litter. I saw zero mayhem (which I’ll define as violence, vandalism, rioting, verbal abuse, looting, or shooting).

I asked Nicola if she felt that Swiss protests and marches had any different characteristics than marches elsewhere in the world. Not having studied protest marches specifically, she could only conjecture with me. She agreed that the protests in Switzerland might have a more mellow tone, and she hypothesized that this may stem from the trust the Swiss have that their government will listen and will work to assuage their grievances, once heard.

“We still feel that we’re empowered to make change,” she said. “People feel part of the process and they feel that they are heard. We can have a discussion. We can get consensus. We are champion consensus seekers.”

Trust in the Government Sounds Nice

For such a large country, the United States doesn’t have many protests. Compared to what I’ve seen across Europe, we either suffer from massive apathy, massive despair, or a combination of the two.

Maybe we don’t believe we can effect change. Maybe we think nothing all that bad could ever happen. (How often have I heard in response to my own outrage, “That would never happen here.” Also: “Don’t get so worked up. It will never get that bad.”)

Maybe we never learned how to protest peaceably as a society, such that almost every demonstration seems to turn into mayhem. Mayhem limits the number of people who want to protest to people who don’t mind—or even like—mayhem. And mayhem limits the protests’ credibility in public and governmental eyes.

Of course, Switzerland and the United States differ significantly in size, and the U.S. government has a lot of geography between most of its citizens and its seat. Also, we don’t have a direct democracy, as they do here. These factors all play roles in people feeling like marching will get attention from and will effect change by the people in power.

When these factors get exacerbated by a growing distrust in government, as we’ve seen in the United States in recent years, marches start to feel ever less constructive, ever less a good use of time and energy. Per the Pew Research Center, we’ve hit historic lows in our trust of our government: “Only 17 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3 percent) or ‘most of the time’ (14 percent).”

Whether we’ll finally slough off our complacency, apathy, or despair or whether we’ll rely on them all to weather the storm to whatever comes out on the other end, only time will tell.

Have You Seen Swiss Protests?

Someone out there must have studied the Swiss in protest over the years—even unofficially. And someone here longer than me might have insights I haven’t had time or experience to develop.

Do the Swiss truly see marching as an official channel—not as a fuss or a conflict? Are three large protests in a nine-month period on par for the Swiss—or do we see a new trend in the making? What makes a protest in Switzerland uniquely Swiss? Are Swiss protests more effective than protests in other countries—and if so, why? What can other countries learn from Swiss protests and marches?

If you have insights, share them.