Based in Lausanne, Le Temps ("The Times") is one of Switzerland's top French-language dailies. It was founded in 1998 as a merger among various newspapers: Journal de Geneve, Gazette de Lausanne and Le Nouveau Quotidien.
Martin Greenacre

Just A Handshake? Touchy Subject For Pious Muslims In The West

A series of recent legal cases across Europe have questioned whether those who refuse to shake hands with people of the opposite sex for religious reasons are guilty of discrimination.

PARIS — The traditional Muslim veil has long been a source of conflict in the West over integration and gender equality. Now, another familiar practice is prompting debate: the handshake.

Last week, it was reported that a Muslim couple had been denied Swiss citizenship after refusing — for religious reasons — to shake hands with people of the opposite sex during their interview. Officials cited a lack of respect for gender equality as the reason for their decision.

It is not the first time the topic of handshakes has caused a stir in the country. In 2016, two Syrian immigrant brothers refused to shake their female teacher's hand, arguing that Islam did not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex who is not a family member. Shaking the teacher's hand before and after class is a long-standing tradition in Switzerland, and the regional educational authority ruled that parents of children who refuse would face a fine. Swiss Muslim groups disagreed over whether the brothers were justified in refusing.

The Swiss Federal Court has previously rejected a local ban on wearing hijabs in schools. The board of education, however, ruled that forcing the students to shake the teacher's hand was a reasonable intrusion on their religious beliefs, since "it did not involve the central tenets of Islam," The New York Times reports.

Hafid Ouardiri, a Swiss mediator who is active in the fight against radicalization, told Geneva-based newspaper Le Temps: "We need to take this case very seriously. It is unacceptable that these students refuse to shake their teacher's hand in the name of Islam Above all, our religion teaches respect." The newspaper asked whether the refusal could be the sign of a "slide" towards radicalism, after one of the boys posted videos of soldiers on Facebook in which there was "no explicit violence, but a black flag, identical to those used by the Islamic State group, was visible."

She puts her hand to her heart.

Also last week, a Swedish Muslim woman won compensation after her job interview was cut short when she refused to shake the male interviewer's hand. Sweden's Labor Court ruled that she had been discriminated against, since there was no evidence her refusal would cause difficulties in her work as an interpreter, The Local reports. The woman had argued that when both men and women are present, she greets them the same way, by putting her hand to her heart.

France, where the battle over the Muslim veil has been a major issue for years, has also found itself at the center of the handshake debate. In 2017, an Algerian women was denied citizenship after she refused to shake the hand of a senior official during her naturalization ceremony. Le Figaro reports that the ruling was recently upheld by the Council of State, France's highest administrative jurisdiction. The government claimed that the actions of the woman, who has been married to a French man since 2010, "reveal a lack of assimilation."

The question of gender boundaries is not limited to Islam. When Mike Pence became Vice President of the United States, an interview from 2002 resurfaced in which the evangelical Christian revealed that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife. A 2015 survey by National Journal found that several female aides in Washington reported being barred from "driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression," reports The Atlantic. The magazine argues that similar policies harm women's progress by cutting them off from powerful people for long parts of the day.

Also Orthodox Judaism has rules forbidding a man from touching a woman who isn't his wife. Earlier this year, a Jewish candidate in a local election in Antwerp, Belgium, caused controversy by initially refusing to shake hands with women, the Flanders news site VRT NWS reports. He planned to run representing the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V). One of the party's leaders, Hendrik Bogaert, wrote on Twitter that a man who refuses to shake a women's hand "doesn't belong on a CD&V list."

Jean-Arnault Dérens and Laurent Geslin

Will Croatia's Quest For Energy Independence Cost It Krk?

A popular tourist destination in the Adriatic sea is bracing for the construction of a floating, 400-million-euro regasification facility.

NJIVICE — The tourism season hasn't begun yet on the island of Krk, in the northern Adriatic, where silhouettes of tankers and container ships on their way to the port of Rijeka stand out against the background of the Kvarner Gulf, casting their immense shadows on the fishermen's boats.

Drazen Lesica looks out at the sea from the window of his family restaurant, founded in 1934 by his great-grandparents in the village of Njivice. "Fishing is our wealth," he says. "We've been working with the same families of sailors for three generations. But with the construction of the gas terminal, the bay will turn into a chlorinated pool."

Tourism also contributes to the lives of the locals. In a few weeks, the first contingents of German pensioners should begin to colonize the hotels and campsites. During the summer months, vacationers bring the island's population from 19,000 to more than 190,000. But this financial windfall could dry up if the Croatian government's projects come to fruition.

For a decade, the inhabitants of Krk heard repeatedly that the diversification of Europe's energy sources could one day involve their island, but until now, it was all just talk. What was decided, in 2015, was to build an onshore regasification terminal, but then the plan changed.

Clear waters off the island of Krk, Croatia Photo: Kiedrowski, R/ZUMA

"We were not delighted by this project, but we had decided to accept it because the ecological consequences seemed limited," explains Mirela Ahmetovic, the mayor of the municipality of Omisalj, in the northern part of Krk. "We granted a building permit for the onshore terminal but, without telling us, the government decided to build an offshore terminal instead and use a polluting technology that uses seawater for regasification. This decision violates the laws of the Republic of Croatia on urban planning, the environment and the protection of maritime property."

It would supply gas to a large part of central Europe, still dependent on Russian supplies

With a capacity of around 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year, the terminal — a 300-meter long ship anchored on the side of the island — is expected to cost 383 million euros. The European Union pledged in July 2017 to contribute to the tune of 101.4 million euros.

It would supply gas to a large part of central Europe, still dependent on Russian supplies. "A 16-member commission was set up to assess the project's environmental consequences, but nine of them were appointed by the government, and of course they concluded that the terminal was safe," says Vjeran Pirsic of the environmental association Eko-Kvarner.

Desperate measures

In defiance of local opponents, who demonstrated in Rijeka on March 3, and to override opposition from the municipality of Omisalj, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is considering special legislation to allow construction to begin. U.S. President Donald Trump himself welcomed the project, which could provide an outlet for U.S. gas.

"We are accused of being pro-Russian," Ahmetovic says indignantly. The mayor believes that the "geopolitical" arguments serve mainly to hide private interests, while no study on the profitability of the offshore platform has been made public.

"The Kvarner Gulf is connected to the rest of the Adriatic via only three canals. Tts shores are home to 200,000 inhabitants and as well as big industrial centers," says Milvana Arko-Pijevac, a biologist at the Natural History Museum in Rijeka. "The bay's northern seabed is devastated and the use of seawater for regasification will lead to another disaster. To rid the water of organic matter, you need to add chlorine, up to 2 milligrams per liter. Discharged into the sea, the wastewater will sterilize the seabeds. Soon, our children won't find anything alive on the continental shelf."

We are accused of being pro-Russian.

The offshore terminal should be located on the western bank of Krk, between Omisalj and Njivice, near the Jadranski naftovod oil terminal (JANAF) and the Dina Petrokemija chemical plant. "The island was industrialized during the Yugoslav period, but we now derive most of our income from tourism," Ahmetovic explains.

A few kilometers from the future terminal, 80 homes are under construction on a wooded hillside. "We have invested millions of euros to improve our accommodation capacity, but pollution will make the sea unfit for swimming," sighs Zvonimir Tudorovic, co-owner of the Njivice Hotels group. The businessman says that unless the government backs down, the inhabitants of the island will have to mobilize. "Our only resort will be to block the bridge to the mainland."

Julie Rambal

(Even Older) Boomerang Children Weigh On Parents' Well-Being

More and more young and not-so-young people are returning home to live with their parents. A phenomenon which is hard on their aging parents.

GENEVA — Françoise, 71, couldn't have dreamt of a more complicated relationship with her 39-year-old daughter Sandra. They used to speak every day, and not a week would pass without them seeing one another. But their relationship changed last September when Sandra arrived and unpacked her suitcases after a break-up. "She stayed seven months. Hell!" sighs Françoise. "She never ceased to remind me that I am old and decrepit and that she can't stand my retired life. Worse, she didn't do anything around the house, despite the fact that she acted very autonomously. I found myself stuck with a 40-year-old teenager."

Françoise says her grown daughter, who wanted a child of her own, had been stung badly by her boyfriend who changed his mind at the last minute. "She took her anger out on me," the aging mother said. "I didn't dare to invite friends over for lunch if she so much as seemed to be in a bad mood. I felt obliged to constantly be at her disposal."

Sandra was not the first daughter to come back to the nest. Six years ago, she housed her youngest daughter and her boyfriend. The couple was situated in the house for two years, enough time to have a baby and find an apartment. "The atmosphere was better, but they weren't much help either. This generation is bizarre," said Françoise. "In my youth, it was necessary for everyone to leave their parents' house as soon as possible. But now it seems they'll come back under any circumstances."

They've been named the Boomerang Generation: a new set of offspring thought to have been given every possible tool needed to ensure their success, until they return home, key in hand, years later. According to sociologist François Höpflinger at Zurich University, who specializes in family, aging and intergenerational relations, the phenomenon is growing in Switzerland. "Already youths tend to stay in their parents' homes longer, sometimes until 25 or 28 years of age, but now that number is currently rising so that 40-50-year-old adults are returning home in the aftermath of divorce or loss of a job," Höpflinger explains. "This is especially prevalent in wealthier cities like Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich, where often parents have lived in the same place for more than 20 years, with below-market rent and spare bedrooms."

The London School of Economics did a study that measured the quality of life for parents aged 50-75 in 17 countries who were forced to live again with their grown children. The impact of these returns was calculated by looking at "feelings of control, autonomy, and every-day pleasure and self-realization." The results: These parents showed an average loss of 0.8 points on their measurement of quality of life, equivalent to that of a handicapped old woman who has trouble dressing herself and moving around.

The return of their children is seen not just as a sacrifice for parents, but also a failure of the child's transition into adulthood. The usual contract remains: I will pay for your studies for however long they take, but after that, you're on your own," confirms Caroline Henchoz, a sociologist who specializes in finance for couples and families at the Fribourg University. "In the modes of familial solidarity, parents provide economic aid as much as they can as an investment, in order to conserve the independence of both themselves and their children. Most of these returns happen in modest families." This can be seen through the 615,000 Swiss now affected by poverty. "These returns offer a way to get back on your feet, but they remain a last resort," continues Henchoz. In our interviews with young people aged 18 to 30, it was clear their aim was not to return home. Even when faced with enormous debt, they try to get by on their own.

When will you be home? Who are you seeing?

At 29 years old, Alice had to move back into her childhood room after living in the United States for six years. Questions like: "When will you be home? Who are you seeing? Are you eating dinner with us? are insufferable when you have already tasted independence. My relationship with my dad was so strained and tense that I escaped home as soon as I could."

But often parents of this generation allow their children to stay as long as they please as François Höpflinger notes, "Sociologically we are staying young longer, in Switzerland, the average age that people have their first child is 32. So living with parents or returning to them until then is easily tolerated. The boomerang effect has almost become a phase of life, it's only at 40 that the feeling of failure is felt on both sides."

Behind closed doors, even the parents of twenty-year-old boomerangs suffer. "At first I was depressed when our son found his first job and apartment, but then I rediscovered the freedom I had had in my 20s," says Sabine, 54. "But then he crashed and came back. Since then, he has found a job but has also discovered that he likes saving a piece of his salary to party and travel. He'll empty the fridge without buying anything and brings girls back to the house. Watching him has taught us great life lessons, considering that he considers himself an adult. Maybe to encourage him to move out, I will start to ask for rent."

Fabien Goubet and Florian Delafoi

Behold Tomorrow! Meet The Professional Futurists

GENEVA — One day last October, during the morning talk show on Swiss state broadcaster RTS, still groggy viewers were brutally awakened by a sentence dropped live on-air: "Schools train children who will be decimated by artificial intelligence." The voice that dragged them out of their reverie belonged to a French doctor and entrepreneur named Laurent Alexandre. His words hit their mark, so much so that the video clip instantly went viral on social media.

Laurent Alexandre doesn't have a monopoly on snappy sentences. "Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300." This prediction is trademarked by Gerd Leonhard, one of Europe's leading thinkers of the future. The website of this Zurich-based German thinker is worth its weight in divinatory herbs. In the background, a video plays on a loop, showing the spry 50-year-old in a dark suit with a sly smile and wavy gray hair. Leonhard's face turns in slow motion towards the horizon, his gaze plunged serenely towards the future. A yellow sticker that reads "Top 100 Wired" reminds us that Leonhard is among the world's most influential personalities on innovation. Visitors are then invited to "futurize their business', in other words, hire Gerd's services for a conference.

Each era has its own oracles

One last pithy pitch? "By 2045, human and artificial intelligence will have merged, and humans will live forever, in digital form." This is from Ray Kurzweil, head of engineering at Google and "pope" of the movement of transhumanists. For him, humanity is on the verge of "Singularity," a formidable technological leap that will make it immortal, either via a decisive medical discovery or the possibility of uploading one's mind onto a computer. What a future!

These and other openly undeterred optimists or grim Cassandras of technology are among us. Their prophecies abound on social media, and they themselves abound in the media. "They" are the futurists, experts who care so much about our future that they feel invested with an almost sacred mission to spread the good (or bad) word of the future. In the current era of technological developments and the questions they raise, such Prophets 2.0 disseminate their predictions to anyone willing to listen, operators of a fascinating social phenomenon.

Knowing the future has been a major concern for all civilizations. To know whether the hunt would be good, whether a drought or rainfall would hit the city or whether it was necessary to attack the neighboring kingdom has always interested humans, hunter-gatherers and powerful urban bigwigs alike. This thirst for the future is what paved the way for the druids, the magi, the shamans, the fortune tellers and the like, a way that's now occupied by professional futurists.

"Each era has its own oracles," says Nicolas Nova, a professor at the Geneva University of Art and Design and co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, which specializes in foresight and innovation. "Since the end of World War II, there has been a more rational corps of professionals dedicated to these questions." It's something the Americans call future research.

The 1960s marked the golden age of futurology, although the predictions made at the time for the dawn of the third millennium now seem rather grotesque. We were told that we'd be using flying cars, though we're still rotting away in ground traffic. We were supposed to make the Moon or Mars colonies of the Earth, but they'll remain deserted for a long time. And what about visions of jetpacks, which science promised us, but haven't gotten past clunky and dangerous prototypes?

Laurent Alexandre introduced himself as a "televangelist" to a French Senate committee in January 2017 that listened to him talk about the future of A — Photo: Olivier Ezratty/TEDX Paris

In the midst of the Cold War and the excitement from the conquest of space, most of the predictions focused on space. But now, they are being replaced by artificial intelligence and transhumanism. "Futurists are opinion leaders. They are listened to, though they don't have any real scientific legitimacy," regrets Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, specialist of artificial intelligence and author of an essay that deconstructs the "myth of singularity." Could it be that, like their elders, today's futurists have it all wrong?

It's more complicated than that. "Their role is not so much to predict the future as to anticipate possible futures," says professor Nova. Futurists always make a point of reminding us of this. "I don't make predictions, but short-term forecasts over the next five to ten years," insists Gerd Leonhard. While Laurent Alexandre declares that his "thinking is rather nuanced, I outline several scenarios."

Futurists have a certain tendency to forget black swans.

To produce such scenarios, Leonhard, who says he reads five or six books each month, says he spends a lot of time gathering material and exchanging ideas with experts at his conferences. "If you look closely at how a sector works, you can develop forecasts, it's not that difficult," says the former guitarist and music producer, who rose to fame after the publication the 2005 essay The Future of Music, a book that got it right about how music would play out on the Internet.

While their predictions are sometimes confirmed, their rhetoric tends to underestimate the complexity and unexpected side of reality. In 2007, the philosopher Nicholas Taleb developed the "Black Swan" theory, in which this animal represents an unpredictable event with major consequences. "Futurists have a certain tendency to forget black swans," Nicolas Nova says. "Of course, they are very difficult to predict since they are, by definition, unpredictable. But to make good predictions, you have to integrate unexpected or harebrained events." In other words, and as risky as it might be to do so, you need to add some whimsicality if you want to be taken seriously.

Laurent Alexandre knows a thing or two about whim. He introduced himself as a "televangelist" to a French Senate committee in January 2017 that listened to him talk about the future of AI. And he went on with an almost theatrical intervention, delivering one quotable sentence after another: "We risk becoming the Zimbabwe of 2080!" The video of his hearing was viewed more than 1.4 million times on his Facebook page.

And never mind if he's got it all wrong. "We must accept that futurists don't think like everyone else, that they can say stupid things. If we block any debate on the future, we're not allowing the maturation of society to prepare for the future," says Alexandre, who has also been singled out for uninhibitedly calling for eugenic policies in a column for the French weekly magazine Le Point.

Gerd Leonhard and Laurent Alexandre sell their expertise at conferences and company seminars. Though they're sometimes gratis, these interventions — when paid — can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Alexandre says he gets "about ten requests a day," though he doesn't reveal any financial figures. Predicting the future is already a profitable business.

Valère Gogniat

Rolex, Making Of A Worldwide Reputation From A Swiss Backyard

GENEVA — At a time when trust and truth are under attack, it's somehow comforting to see that some reputations can still go untarnished.

For the third year in a row, Swiss company Rolex has earned the designation as the company with the world's best reputation, as awarded by the Reputation Institute, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The timeless watchmakers beat out (in order) LEGO, Google, Canon and the Walt Disney Company to the top spot.

"How do they do it? That's the million-dollar question," said Carsten Wegmann, director of the Reputation Institute. "Rolex has quality in their blood, from their highest director to their first apprentice." Part of maintaining high global standards is to keep operations close to home: all Rolex watch models continue to be developed and manufactured between Geneva and Bienne.

We noticed a decline in trust across the board.

In terms of methodology, the Reputation Institute contacted more than 230,000 people from 15 countries. The selected companies must meet three criteria: Have a "significant" presence in the countries surveyed, an "above average" reputation in their home country and a "global familiarity" of more than 40%.

Dominique Turpin, a professor at the International Institute of Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, believes this methodology "holds up." He stresses the infinite difficulty of accurately measuring one's reputation. "The public is fond of it and we are doing it today for just about everything. Even here at IMD, for example, we have a ranking of competitiveness that works very well. But, in the end, it allows the company that produces the rankings to become recognized."

Tennis champion Roger Federer playing in the Shanghai Masters — Photo: Fan Jun/ZUMA

Reputations, overall, took a hit in 2017. "This past year, we noticed a decline in trust across the board. Large companies are more easily criticized and challenged. But Rolex has never been in the spotlight for a misstep," said Wegmann.

"This ranking demonstrates the know-how and expertise that we can have in Switzerland with an international reputation," Rolex said in response to their victory.

Their expertise no doubt also includes smart marketing, and it should be noted that Rolex is the "Official Timekeeper" at Wimbledon, and the company sponsors fellow Swiss icon, tennis champion Roger Federer, who has 20 Grand Slam tournament titles over the past 15 years — and counting. That's the kind of quality you can set your watch to.

Syria Crisis
Marie-Hélène Miauton

Here We Go Again: Iraq To Syria, Chemical Weapons And Collective Amnesia


Tensions are reaching a bursting point over Syria! Just as Saddam Hussein's (hypothetical) possession of weapons of mass destruction led U.S. President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, the (alleged) use of lethal gases on Douma, a district in Syria's Eastern Ghouta controlled by Islamists, now allows Donald Trump to announce harsh reprisals.

Once again, a coalition of the "good" is forming against the "axis of evil," embodied in this case by Russia — which supports Syria, whose president is "a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it," as Trump tweeted with his trademark sense of moderation. Failing to learn the lessons of the past, the Western world is therefore trying to overthrow a secular regime in Syria, just as it did in Iraq, a move that allowed the emergence of this Islamic state that they claim they want to annihilate. Nonsense!

What Trump and others want to destroy in Syria is the regime in place supported by Moscow, which is definitely taking on far too much importance at the moment. This land thus becomes the battleground for monumental geopolitical and economic interests.


Incidentally, Russia has become the second largest arms exporter in the world after the U.S. Although Russian exports are four times smaller than those of the U.S., the American hawks must be thinking that it cannot be allowed to last! This is why the aircraft carriers are on the move, as are the submarines and the war planes ... preparing for the full-scale demonstration of the superiority of the F-22 over the Sukhoi-24, or of the U.S. military's "nice and new and ‘smart""" — as Trump put it — missiles, over the new Sarmat, which, according to Putin, are "capable of striking targets both via the North and South Poles."

What are we playing at here, under the watchful and totally useless eye of the United Nations? Have we forgotten everything already? The justifications given for invading Iraq, with the aim of supposedly "establishing democracy and pacifying the Middle East by way of an example effect"? Saddam Hussein's alleged ties with terrorist networks when he was actually actively fighting them?

Have we forgotten Colin Powell's incredible claim that Saddam Hussein "investigated dozens of biological agents causing diseases such as gas gangrene, plague, typhus, tetanus, cholera, camelpox and hemorrhagic fever"? Or the false statement of a pseudo-Kuwaiti nurse paid by the U.S. to claim she had seen Iraqi soldiers loot the maternity ward of a hospital in Kuwait and "take babies from the incubators and kill them mercilessly by throwing them to the ground"?

Have we really forgotten everything?

What about the luxurious press service that was stationed in the desert and tasked with feeding the international media with war and technological exploits? Don't we remember that? Or the so-called "surgical war" that actually killed over a million people? Have we really forgotten everything?

It is astonishing to see that Donald Trump, whose unpredictability, recklessness and ridicule are unanimously and constantly denounced, regains his former glory as soon as he proposes to pound Syria, or what's left of it. That Theresa May, whose strategic and tactical weakness is largely deplored, is showing no hesitation in pushing Britain, entangled in the Brexit negotiations, to play war games with its American big brother. That France, which used to know better, is joining the club of good intentions while its trains are on strike, its university campuses blocked by protesters, its reforms badly accepted.

While these heads of state are often judged poorly when it comes to their domestic programs and governing ability, they're considered instantly credible, for some reason, when making major international decisions. And yet, those decision could very well lead to a world conflict or, at the very least, a new bloodbath in the Middle East. Go figure!


Between Healthy Fries And Guilt-Free #FatSwissGirls


The Western world isn't short of public enemies right now. There are, of course, the usual suspects: Putin, Assad, even Mark Zuckerberg seems to have joined the club. But there's another, more discreet nemesis that may loom closer than the rest: acrylamide, a natural chemical that's produced as part of the cooking process for certain foods.

You can find it in coffee (it's produced during the roasting process), French fries and bread. And though the science remains inconclusive, some researchers now consider as a potential carcinogen. Acrylamide is the reason why coffee in California will soon come with a consumer warning about cancer. It's also the reason why fries in Germany — or pommes frites, as they call them — won't be as crunchy anymore.

Yes, starting this week, new European Union legislation comes into force imposing benchmark levels in a bid to reduce the amount of acrylamide in various products, from muesli and biscuits to coffee. For fries, (French and otherwise) that means blanching them before frying, and frying them at lower temperatures.

Bad news for people who like their fries extra-crispy — or even brown, as the German newspaper Die Welt reports. But then again, how exactly do they plan to enforce it?

"They can come and control me," Raimund Ostendorp, a popular German chef who now owns a takeaway in Bochum, in the Ruhr district, told the newspaper. "I'll just keep on making delicious fries. Who are they going to send? The frying squad?"

There are obvious benefits to the fact that politicians are paying more attention to what lands in our plates. But there's always the risk of overdoing it: Too much control, and people may instead decide to rebel, and take things in the opposite direction.

A popular new Instagram account from Switzerland — the land of cheeses and chocolate — may be a case in point. As noted recently in the the Swiss daily Le Temps, the account celebrates an #unhealthylifestyle as a reaction to the "omnipresence of stereotypes online" and "overrepresentation of a lifestyle based on happiness and slenderness."

Sure, it's a bit tongue-in-cheek. But there's also a real message involved, according to Agathe Hauser, the 26-year-old comedian behind the @Swissfatgirls Instagram account. "Let's stop feeling guilty," she told the paper. "Let's enjoy life to the fullest and accept that nobody's perfect."

Mathilde Farine and Céline Zünd

Is Switzerland Finally On Its Way To Being Cool?

It may not be Europe's biggest trend setter, but in subtle ways, the land-locked, quadrilingual republic is fashioning a hipper, more confident cultural identity.

ZURICH — Ask any Swiss person if they think their country is cool and you're likely to get a raised eyebrow, maybe even a burst of laughter. Efficient? Sure. Switzerland is also safe, tidy. All that. But cool? That's just not the first word that comes to mind — unless you're Nicolas Bideau, director of the federal agency Presence Switzerland.

Bideau's job is to promote the country's image, which is his mind, has every reason to be considered cool. Take Roger Federer. He's "the king of coolness," in Bideau's opinion. There's also the "Nati," as the Swiss national soccer team is known. And so on and so forth. "The Swiss-made brand is so cool that everybody wants to copy it," the Presence Switzerland head insists.

Really? Federer's ageless heroics and the Nati's berth in the upcoming FIFA World Cup may certainly have improved the image of Swiss sports. But you still don't see hordes of young people rushing to Switzerland on EasyJet flights. Geneva isn't Barcelona, after all. Zurich isn't Berlin. Swiss cities are way too expensive to be cool.

Still, over the past two decades, Switzerland's image undergone a discreet transformation. It's been modernized, rejuvenated even. In 1998, after a settlement was reached in the World Jewish Congress lawsuit against Swiss banks, the banker country's reputation hit a new low. But what about now? How does its image stack up 20 years later?

Roger Federer playing in the Match for Africa in March — Photo: rogerfederer

For answers, we turned to experienced observers who live between Switzerland and foreign countries.

"Switzerland has expanded its horizons if not its borders," says Susann Sitzler, a Berlin-based German-Swiss journalist born in the Swiss city of Basel. "It has developed and diversified itself." In looking outward, the Swiss learned to assert themselves, she adds. "Faced with the Germans who speak loudly and say what they think, they've had to come out of their shell and they're more aware of their qualities."

Switzerland in 2018 is more confident than it was in 1998.

Sitzler has plenty of positive things to say about her country of origin— its gastronomy, its sense of innovation, and the high level of education "among the rich and poor alike" but laments its perfectionism. "We still worry too much about what people will say," she argues. "It's incapacitating because we prefer to do nothing rather than make a mistake."

This keen sense of self-criticism also annoys Axel, an Icelander who has been living in Zurich for five years and for whom there is no cooler place than Switzerland. "Its architecture is interesting. "Its quality of life is fantastic. Access to culture is easy. How can you not find it cool to be able to jump on a train in the morning, ski during the day and return to town at night?"

Style ambassadors

But what does it actually mean to be cool? Two Ph.D. students in philosophy from the University of Geneva — Constant Bonard and Benjamin Neeser — have set about defining this notion, which is as vague as it is commonly used. In their opinion, coolness has two properties: some originality and a certain form of non-conformism. But above all, it's ephemeral, and is defined by an "elite."

The degree of coolness in Switzerland, therefore, depends on the size of this young, mobile, educated, world-oriented population. Little wonder that art schools, universities, polytechnic schools, all act as hubs. "By attracting international students, they forced the locals to compete, to compare themselves," says filmmaker Lionel Baier.

The country has gone through a process of "decompartmentalization" that's been amplified over the last 20 years, according to Baier, the introduction of the Internet and social networks, and the increase in university exchanges. Switzerland has no exoticism and hardly exists in the eyes of the rest of the world, the French-speaking director notes. But that's also an asset. "It makes you want to leave, to go see elsewhere, to confront yourself with other realities," Baier says.

Switzerland is home to picturesque scenery, which is cool?— Photo: Joshua Earle

"Look at the number of explorers Switzerland has produced. Ella Maillart, Nicolas Bouvier..." he adds. "The Swiss have the courage of the wealthy who have not experienced war. They are particularly good at adapting."

As a result, Switzerland has developed ambassadors in design, fashion or sport. Those export a form of aesthetics and a certain sense of know-how, which is no longer synonymous with outdatedness. Switzerland in 2018 is more confident than it was in 1998. Baier sees it as a "great talent incubator" and says it's especially good at fostering confidence amount the youth. "We let young people go with kindness, hoping they will come back," he says.

But if the cool-defining "elite" export themselves, what remains? For British journalist Haig Simonian, a former correspondent for the Financial Times, this is where the problem lies. He sees a whole series of advantages to Switzerland: efficiency, quality of life, beautiful landscapes, but nothing that fits into his own definition of "cool," like a musical or artistic scene that would attract young people.

"When my daughter was in boarding school in England, she was asked if she had a cow at home and if she had any cellphone service," he recalls. "You think that looks cool?"

Behavior shifts

Another foreign journalist, Tyler Brûlé of Canada, agrees that Switzerland has become far more international. "In some parts of Zurich, I feel like I'm in Berlin — in a smaller, cleaner, more orderly version," he says.

The editor-in-chief of the information and lifestyle magazine Monocle has reinforced his team in Zurich, where he plans to open a café and a shop soon. He feels much more welcomed now than in the past when he first settled down. "Someone slipped a note under my door reading, "Foreigners go home,"" Brûlé recalls. He also describes a change in mentality. In the past, young people dreamed of long careers in big companies, he says. But now — perhaps because of the economic and banking crisis of 2007 — "more and more young people are starting small businesses," the journalist notes.

"I'm not sure Switzerland wants the rest of the world to be aware of what it has to offer."

But like Simonian, Brûlé isn't quite ready to call Switzerland cool. "It doesn't produce anything very popular, unlike the Nordic countries, which resemble it. Why has Switzerland never produced a film like The Square? Or a hit series? Or a brand like H&M or Ikea? Where is Swiss pop culture?" he asks.

Except real coolness is separate from mass consumption, right? It hides in niches invisible to the general public: local scenes, ephemeral events, spaces of spontaneity. "One of the biggest surprises for my friends who come to visit me is summer by the Limmat river," says Charlotte Theile, a Switzerland correspondent for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Relaxation, music, people jumping in the river. You don't expect so much coolness in Zurich. Many people don't actually know Switzerland. Zurich offers an incredible amount culturally, but it's not necessarily known outside the city's borders."

Why not? "I'm not sure Switzerland wants the rest of the world to be aware of what it has to offer," she says. "There is a form of self-satisfaction that leads to indifference"

For some, it is also a matter of generations. Faced with the modesty of their elders, the younger generations will know how to reveal themselves more. Perhaps they'll also manage to flip that script on that other oh-so-Swiss trait and take themselves a little less seriously. Because isn't that, after all, the quintessential quality of coolness?

Luc Debraine

Design And Ecology, An Ugly Truth About Green Energy

Alternative energy projects might be good for the environment. But with a few exceptions, they're awful on the eyes.

LAUSANNE — Fyodor Dostoevsky no doubt, had other things in mind when, in his famous novel The Idiot, he wrote that "beauty will save the world." And yet, a century-and-a-half later, those words have much to say about the current state of green energy technologies.

Simply put, we need energy alternatives to save our planet. But to encourage more people to embrace them, we also need to focus on aesthetics. We need to make them more beautiful, in other words. Because honestly, is anything more unseemly than a massive hydroelectric dam, or solar panels fixed awkwardly onto a roof, or rows of wind turbines breaking up the countryside? It's as if such energy alternatives have to be ugly to be taken seriously.

People already recognize the need for these technologies — to counter depleting natural resources, reduce pollution and limit global warming. Imagine, then, if renewable energy generators were easier on the eyes if besides being efficient, rational and functional, they were also aesthetically pleasing. Remember, without beauty's grace, people feel neither desire nor attachment.

Missing the mark

The problem has much to do with the age-old antagonisms between engineers and artists, meaning designers, architects or any creator of forms. Technicians and artists don't speak the same language. Nor do they have the same expectations or work at the same speed. They think differently, and so struggle to understand each other. An engineer rationalizes, quantifies and resolves problems in a precise framework. An artist looks beyond the framework, seeking forms, symbols, and meanings that are more than just functional.

It's as if such energy alternatives have to be ugly to be taken seriously.

Attempts have been made to bridge the two worlds. But so far, the results are often counterproductive. A prime example is the wind tree installed in 2016 outside a Geneva bank. Designed as an urban generator, the tree's leaves produce energy when they sway. True, it's an elegant contraption. Only it doesn't really work, at least not as a wind turbine. Its leaves turn very little, the power yield is feeble, and the French firm that created the tree went bust last year.

The glass front of the SwissTech Convention Center in Lausanne is another example. The facade is made of translucent solar panels tinted red, green and orange. Very interesting, from a visual standpoint, but again the energy the panels produce is meager. It's another case of beautiful thwarting useful.

The Swiss Solar House — Photo: Solar Decathlon

Still, there are some exceptions. One is the Swiss Solar House, which won the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon prize last October in Denver, Colorado. Like other successful attempts to combine beauty and functionality, the Swiss Solar House was the product of close collaboration, from the outset, between artists and engineers. To integrate their efforts, the two teams had to share a common vision and speak a sort of common language.

The experimental project, which involved people from several Swiss technical institutions, was headed by Marilyne Anderson of Lausanne's L"École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL). "Until recently the debate focused on energetic performance at the expense of aesthetics," Anderson explains. "In fact, a schism arose between those talking sustainability and those concerned with construction quality."

Artistry in motion

Green automobiles have also suffered from a beauty deficit or, more specifically, from an overly conservative design approach. Car designers are beholden to their traditions and told not to be too bold given the huge amounts of money at stake. They take their lead, in other words, from technicians and accountants.

I learned a whole lot.

But even there, things are shifting. At the recent Detroit automobile show, some designers spoke openly about aesthetics. Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan's vice-president for global design, talked about the artistry of the Xmotion — an SUV prototype with a smooth, wood-crafted cockpit — and the QX Inspiration, one of its Infiniti-line luxury models.

Karim Habib, head of design at Infiniti, mentioned that he'd studied art in Switzerland. He took sculpture, painting and architecture classes — all of which were key to his training as an industrial designer, he said. Habib recalled one particular class taught by a professor trained at the typography school in Basel. "For the first time in my life, I understood the importance of proportions, the balance between fineness and thickness," he said. "I learned a whole lot."

Nissan Xmotion concept — Photo: Nissan

Another sign of change is that art schools have begun winning automobile design contests. Last year, two students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland won one of the Innovation Challenge prizes awarded by the French automotive supplier Valeo. Some 5,000 students from 750 universities — most of them, technical institutions — participated in the contest.

The Krakow students designed an elegant, self-driving electric car that can function as both a passenger and delivery vehicle, and sever as a sleeping pod. They were the first Valeo winners to come from the fine arts rather than an engineering school. Given the way things are going, they may not be the last. And who knows, perhaps one day, beauty — rather than blah — will become the defining characteristic of sustainability.

Virginie Montmartin

Emissions, Ecology And Cures For The Common Cow Fart

In their own silent but deadly way, cattle are contributing to climate change. Adapting their diets may be one way to ease the problem. Changing our eating habits is another.

LAUSANNE — Fighting climate change means limiting our greenhouse gas emissions, which for most of us means carbon dioxide (CO2). But methane is also a major problem. Though less persistent in the atmosphere, this gas has a warming power 25 times higher than CO2. And the bulk of it is emitted by bloated bovines: cattle.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that methane gas from the burps and flatulence associated with ruminant digestion accounts for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, making it the leading source of emissions in this sector. To reduce these emissions, various possibilities are being explored, including adjustments to livestock feeding.

The Swiss company Zaluvida is developing the Mootral, a natural supplement made with garlic and orange peel that it intends to market later this year. This product promises to limit methane emissions by 30% by modifying the bacteriological composition of rumen. A European study led by the French company Valorex focused on the addition of cooked linseed to the daily diet of cattle. The announced result is a reduction in emissions of up to 37%. And a Swiss company called DSM Nutritional Products is banking on a synthetic food compound that would inhibit the enzyme responsible for the production of methane in the stomach. The product also boasts a 30% reduction in emissions and is expected to be released next year.

The real effect would rather be closer to 10% or 13%.

Keep in mind that these figures come from lab tests. In barns and pastures, the effects of Mootral and its ilk may not be quite so marvelous. "The real effect would rather be closer to 10% or 13%," says Andreas Münger, a researcher in agronomics.

Other feeding techniques have also been shown to reduce emissions. "It's the digestion of fibers from fodder and grass that causes the most methane emissions. Cereals can be added to the ration to limit fiber intake," Münger explains. And by adding cereals to the ration, the milk yield of the animal is increased at the same time. "It is also possible to genetically select cattle to emit less methane," he adds.

There's also, of course, the option of reducing the overall number of cattle. Fewer animals means fewer burps and back-side blasts. But that would mean changing our beef and dairy-product habits — a prospect that's at least worth chewing on.

Eric de Lavarène

Libya Revisited: Young People Nudge Benghazi Back To Life

BENGHAZI — They call it the "Café of the Displaced," and it's always full. "It's because my customers followed me here," says Ahmed, a smile on his face as he pours a clever blend of coffee, cream, cocoa powder and sugar.

Everybody's known Ahmed for years. And they know his story, which is also the story of Benghazi — from war and pain to reconstruction. To resurrection.

"My family used to run the biggest coffee shop in town, not far from the waterfront, downtown. Everyone passed through there. Some would sit on the terrace all day. Then the extremists arrived a few months after the revolution and took over the entire street," the 30-year-old says as he leans over his coffee machine. "Our coffee shop was shut down and then it was destroyed. The neighborhood's inhabitants left. We fled and the night fell on Benghazi."

Ahmed says he hasn't been back to the area but that it's recently been liberated. "The fighting is over," he says. "This was the last neighborhood to be recaptured from the terrorists, most of whom claimed to be part of ISIS. But they've hidden landmines everywhere, so it's still too dangerous."

The fighting between groups close to ISIS and militias that fought under the banner of the Libyan National Army lasted more than three years. Following in the footsteps of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Libya had its own "Spring" starting in February 2011. But Benghazi, like the rest of the country, quickly got bogged down in a civil war with unpredictable consequences.

"As a result, Libya is cut in half, with two governments that don't get along and armed factions everywhere," Ali, one of Ahmed's customers, says angrily.

Creative commerce

While a semblance of order has returned in city, allowing people like Ahmed to restart a fragile business, more than 40% of Benghazi's infrastructure and buildings have been affected by the fighting. And some neighborhoods, including the old city center, are literally devastated.

Everywhere else, though, small businesses and shops are flourishing. That, in turn, is allowing young people to rebuild their futures, although because of the faltering economy and of a severe liquidity crisis, they have to be imaginative.

"I opened the only cosmetics school in town and maybe even in the country," says Mawada, 24. The young woman teaches her students the basic rudiments of make-up application, how to apply different colors — from purple to cream — or enhance the eyes with an ebony black.

"Since I didn't have any money, I relied on the landlord to give me a special deal. And my students pay me however they can," Mawada says. One of them pays for classes in cakes she makes in her small bakery. Another offers discounts in her family's shop. A third signs IOUs.

In Benghazi, a whole collaborative economy has emerged from the ruins of war. Despite endemic unemployment, shopping centers are setting up across the city, new shops open every day and some streets are busy until late at night.

Still, this new balance is fragile. And the demons of the past continue to loom over the people of Benghazi, who feel divided — eager to move to, to embrace the future, but also inclined to withdraw.

"A constant battle"

Fatma crosses the city every day to reach Tanarout, the only cultural center in the city. Tanarout opened in 2015, in the middle of the war. The traffic-filled journey takes an hour — through a boring urban landscape made of large but charmless houses, through highways and roundabouts.

The young woman never goes anywhere without her guitar, an incongruous object to have in this city whose streets are often blocked by rogue militiamen who claim, rightly or wrongly, to be part of the Libyan national army. "It's not easy to be an artist in Libya," she says. "Society is not used to seeing a woman singing and playing an instrument. Sometimes I have to hide."

Having arrived safe and sound, we hear the first notes of a rehearsal with percussion instruments, while two young painters are working silently in a corner. The cultural center is located in the vast basement of a house that's still under construction, in a dull new neighborhood, at the end of a dirt street. Musicians, painters, and writers cross paths and rebuild the world, evoking the place of art in the reconstruction of their city.

"We're keeping each other warm," says Fatma, smiling. "We support each other and we move forward by creating. For the moment, we can't really go out, but we hope that one day, art will be on the street."

And yet, the center is hanging by a thread, as Mohamed, one of its founders, explains. "Our society is still suffering and it's difficult for it to accept a place like this," he says. "We are being scrutinized by internal security, which believes that it isn't the right time yet to develop culture. Every day, we are afraid that Tanarout will close its doors."

Mohamed and his colleagues are particularly afraid of the Salafists — there are many of them in the city — who have threatened the group and already forced them to move once. "We had to close and leave overnight," he says. "It's a constant battle. We just want to show that everyone has rights. Rights that were won at a high price in 2011 with the revolution and that we won't give up."

This morning, at the "Café of the displaced," people are talking about a terrorist attack that hit a mosque the previous day and left one dead and more than 140 wounded. It is the second attack on a place of worship in two weeks, proof that as much as things seem to be improving, terror is never far away. The first attack killed more than 40 people. A fragile peace indeed.


The Spy Who Came In From The Cold War


Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in critical condition, three days after they were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury. The pair were presumably poisoned by what is so far referred to as an "unknown substance."

Britain's counter-terrorism police have now taken over the investigation, and already, the finger of suspicion is pointing towards Moscow, in large part because of similarities between this case and the 2006 poisoning of another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London. A public inquiry concluded that the Litvinenko murder was "probably" carried out with the approval of Vladimir Putin.

Another reason for suspecting Moscow's hand comes from 2010 video footage in which the Russian president himself warns Russian spies not to betray their country. "Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me," Putin remarks. "Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them." The video was made the same year Skripal, who had been sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment in Russia, was released as part of a spy swap.

But there's more, as Moscow correspondent Emmanuel Grynszpan writes in the Swiss daily Le Temps: "On Monday, March 5, before news of the incident was made public, Vladimir Putin congratulated the Russian secret services for neutralizing more than 400 foreign spies last year. Speaking in front of his former colleagues from the FSB, of which he once was director, he asked them to keep up their efforts to block ‘any attempts of foreign intelligence services to obtain political, economic, technical and military information.""

Alexander Litvinkenko hospitalized in London in Nov. 2006 — Source: Steve Baker

"The spy mania is unfolding against a backdrop of nuclear rivalry revived by the Russian president's annual state of the nation speech last week," Grynszpan adds. "On March 1, Vladimir Putin said that Russia had developed four new types of ‘invincible" nuclear weapons without their equal anywhere in the world, capable of piercing through any defense system, giving his country strategic superiority."

The timing for both the suspected Russian poisoning of Skripal and the nuclear weapon boast indeed raises many questions, not least because of the upcoming presidential election, set to take place March 18.

"Did Vladimir Putin wave paper missiles to fan the electorate's patriotic flame two weeks from the election?" Grynszpan asks. "Or is it just scare tactics to force Washington to renegotiate some cases that are annoying Moscow? In power for 18 years, Vladimir Putin continues to capitalize on an alleged Russian humiliation that resulted from the break-up of the USSR, which he's described in the past as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." By proclaiming that ‘Russia containment has failed," he's challenging the outcome of the Cold War and trying to appear in the eyes of the Russian population as the instrument of their revenge against the United States."

It's meant to be a reminder to other Russian operatives of the potential risks of working with foreign intelligence agencies.

The logic regarding the timing of Putin's nuclear weapon boast seems implacable. But what if the real motive behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal — if Moscow is indeed behind it — was to be found elsewhere? This is the theory defended in The Guardian by reporter Shaun Walker.

"Suggestions that this could be some kind of vote-winning ploy, coming two weeks before presidential elections Vladimir Putin is certain to win, seem unconvincing," Walker writes. "Many Russians are patriotic and have bought into the Kremlin's aggressive new foreign policy, but it is unlikely that the assassination of a former spy of whom few had heard would do much to whip up popular passions."

More likely it's meant to be a deterrent, a reminder to other Russian operatives of the potential risks of working with foreign intelligence agencies, the reporter argues.

"Every year, Russia's top security officials speak of active attempts by the CIA and other western agencies to recruit Russians. Part of this is propaganda for domestic consumption, but there is no doubt that western spy agencies are active in Russia," The Guardian piece reads.

Suspicions abound. And yet, like with the Litvinenko case, we might never find out for certain who poisoned Skripal and his daughter — or why. Still, one thing that is clear from the events of the past few days is that the relentless power struggle between Russia and the West isn't just taking place in Syria.