The 'Bubble' Of Elite Expat Life In Switzerland

Some Swiss are questioning the parallel lifestyle of rich and highly skilled migrants, some of whom come for tax breaks. The foreign residents are often set apart, for good, in their choice of schools. Can this be remedied?

Living the high life on Lake Zurich (krusenstern)
Living the high life on Lake Zurich (krusenstern)
Anne Fournier

ZURICH - It's 7:30 a.m. when a private school bus stops in front of the entrance to a luxury apartment building constructed in Zurich's old Hürlimann brewery. Mothers buckle in their kids. They say "Bye bye!" and the children are brought to one of the region's private - and naturally, Anglophone - schools.

German-speaking Switzerland is increasingly worried about what is seen as a growing cluster of highly skilled foreign expats, increasingly living in a bubble. It manifests in large part by the snubbing of one of the essential institutions that enables social relations to flourish: public schools. In Zoug, a county famed for its fiscal advantages, city vice-president Andreas Bossard says 80% of expatriates aren't involved in local city life despite attempts to reach out with aperitifs, gifts and tax information services.

"Not long ago, we were trying to attract these migrants by all means, especially fiscal. Now, the discussion is much more cautious," says Ueli Mäder, a sociologist from Basel, who is studying the potential discrimination of highly qualified working migrants. "I doubt that a sudden move to integrate will work, since it is viewed as a correction, as though it were righting a wrong." Mäder also notes that the debate is often limited to financial considerations.

Private vs. Public

Jérôme V. is a French father of two children and a financial expert. He confirms that there are two parallel worlds in his village. He has been living in the northern Swiss city of Feusisberg for the past four years, mainly for taxation reasons. His children go to a private school on the banks of Lake Zurich. "If public schools had the same bilingual teaching opportunities, we would reconsider our decision. Our children are surrounded by 400 young people from around the world. So don't talk about an excluded society!"

So far, his family has not set out to join any of the regional organizations. "I understand how the locals might feel, like they are being invaded," says Jérôme V. He is skeptical about the potential integration processes put in place by the authorities. "These commitments must stay personal. However, I appreciate that my county can inform me on the taxation policies of the next few years, at any time."

Around Basel, 36,000 people belong to this community of highly skilled foreigners, mostly German or Anglophone and especially active in the pharmaceutical industry. A year ago, Green party president Guy Morin insisted on the will to greet these "expats' with welcoming sessions, training for media awareness and developing day-care in schools.

Today, Nicole von Jacobs, who works on integration issues for the Greens, denies that there are specific programs targeting this community. "We adapt to their needs. We try to ensure they know what opportunities they have in the region. Our prevailing integration policy of "encouraging and requiring" applies to them as well, even though many believe, for instance, that English is now sufficient, and that mastering German is no longer necessary." To encourage this, the city organizes information sessions at Novartis to present the Swiss public schools and its virtues.

A similar policy prevails in Zurich, where Julia Morais heads the integration office. "We inform and present the school system and all of its possibilities, like we do for all other foreigners," she says.

German newcomers, who are more numerous, have access to specific outings where they are introduced, "via humor," to potential culture shock. Julia Morais also expects Zurich's inhabitants to make an effort. "We must avoid the jealousies these newcomers are arousing. We need to get used to their presence."

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - krusenstern

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