Switzerland, where failure is not an option

In an opinion piece blasting the unforgiving nature of Swiss society, journalist Grégoire Barbey accuses the country of using people who don’t succeed as examples that failure is not an option. First published on his blog – hosted by French daily newspaper Le Temps – the piece elicited numerous reactions in French-speaking Switzerland. 

This content was published on November 28, 2017
Grégoire Barbey

There are two faces to Switzerland, and the contrast is striking. There is the Switzerland of the picture postcards, the country that frequently leads international ratings for wealth, innovation, performance and happiness.

Then there is the other Switzerland. The one that is swept under the carpet. The Switzerland of those who toil each month to make ends meet. The Switzerland that suppresses failure more than it favours reintegration. Those who find themselves in this growing category are the undesirables.

Grégoire Barbey is a freelance journalist who began his career in political and economic journalism without having followed a traditional university education. For several years he worked for the financial and economic journal L’Agefi, and was also a columnist for La Télé, a private Swiss television channel. Passionate about political issues, he is very active in Geneva and on social media. DR

They are undesirable because they are not sufficiently productive in a system of extreme competition. The gloss of successful Switzerland is inaccessible to them. For these people, the future is bleak – very bleak. They are undesirable because they have, unwittingly, stumbled, even if only once. And in Switzerland, there is no room for failure. Just ask anyone who tried to answer the call of innovative Switzerland by starting their own business.

In our renowned valleys of beautiful views, the law of the market is unrelenting. You start a business, but struggle to pay the bills because the charges are ever-increasing while salaries stagnate. Debts then accumulate, followed by default. This is the daily experience of a growing section of our citizens. And once you have tasted failure, Switzerland is unforgiving. Here, failure is severely punished. People must be reminded that our country is a success, and for that, those who fail serve as an example.

So, we punish them twice. They become indebted, but does the prosecution end? Even if a person manages to pay off their debts, they will be listed in the cantonal administrative register for five years, unless the creditor agrees to cancel the process once the debt has been paid.

That, however, is up to the individual and if they can’t be bothered to waste time on the cancellation procedure, the listing remains. So those who fail become trapped in the circle: just to find accommodation, they will need to produce a document from the cantonal administrative register.

Trapped in a vicious cycle

It doesn’t matter if they have paid off all their debts, or if they have returned to a stable financial situation. The traces remain. For five years, failure is not an option and during that time, any new legal proceeding will prolong the process by another five years – a vicious cycle.

And not all residents are equal: apply for nationality while having debts, and you will really rub the Swiss up the wrong way. I know somebody who has lived in this country for decades, who has always paid taxes on time, but who had the misfortune to become bankrupt. He repays his creditors every month without fail, but a passport is out of the question. He is undesirable because he represents the Switzerland that we prefer to hide.

In Geneva, about a third of taxpayers don’t pay tax, and the number is growing. Demand for social assistance is also growing. Nearly a third of French-speaking Swiss don’t visit the dentist because of the high costs of treatment. A third must rely on the government to subsidise either part, or all, of their health insurance premium. Pensioners are even more likely to leave Switzerland, no doubt because their pension is not enough to live decently in our country.

Lack of debate

But in our land of freedom, do such problems incite major debate about the viability of the system in the long term? No – and it’s even the opposite. When you are listed on this sad register of undesirables, there is no compassion, no questioning of our model of society – only suspicion. Those who are forced to ask for help from the state – thus from the collective – are generally seen as profiteers. To look at them first as people in difficulty would mean recognising the weaknesses of our system. And there is no room for that.

As a result, politicians who attack those who get by with the help of public assistance are praised. Can’t find a job? Lost your job and applied for unemployment benefits? Everything will be done to make you feel ashamed. Those who find themselves on the margins must be terrified into returning to the ranks. Failing in Switzerland is unacceptable behaviour.

So here, those who have lost everything are instantly relegated to the profile of potential abusers of social aid, profiteers of the system, perennial assistance-seekers.

Recently, some sections of the media rejoiced that a People’s Party senator from Bern decided to cut the social assistance budget by 10% to reinvest in reintegration in the workforce. Just another example of those in need being further punished. The same newspaper that praised the minister’s courage also noted that the average duration spent on social benefits is continuing to rise. Today it is 40 months, and the beneficiaries of such assistance are often those aged from 18 to 25.

The figures are obviously worrying, and show just how ruthless the job market is. Is this the future we want for our children? And yet, all these signals are not enough to make us question the system in general. And so, the undesirables, the third wheel on the Swiss coach, serve as political scapegoats. Praise to those people who, on their knees, are being whipped by a society that refuses to look them in the eye. These undesirables remind us just how much the fight for a fairer society is necessary.

This article first appeared on July 9, 2017 on the blog of Grégoire BarbeyExternal link, hosted by daily newspaper Le Temps.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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