On the eve of Bastille Day last year, I joined several hundred French commuters returning from Lausanne to Thonon-les-Bains after their day’s work in Switzerland. The 50-minute ferry journey against the backdrop of Lake Geneva and the French Alps must be one of the most picturesque commutes in the world.
I made the trip as part of the research for a new chapter about Europe in the second edition of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, due out next month. The chapter examines Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union, and I wanted to see for myself the phenomenon of cross-border commuting in action.
Frontaliers, Grenzgänger or frontalieri make up six per cent of the Swiss workforce. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is above all a human one, with millions of Swiss and EU citizens interacting with each other every day in workplaces, families and communities. Apart from the 318,500 cross border workers, some 1.4 million EU citizens currently live in Switzerland, while 430,000 Swiss citizens live in EU countries.
As the commuters streamed onto the Général Guisan ferry that summer’s evening, some carrying scooters and laptops, and many still wearing work badges, the atmosphere was jovial. The last woman to make it on board joined a table of friends indoors. “I left the clinic at 27 past,” she announced, before pulling up a chair. The table soon filled with bottles of beer and glasses of white wine, and the conversation turned to plans for the holiday.
The captain reversed the ship out and swung around to head southwest to the town of Thonon-les-Bains. The 5.30pm crossing in the Général Guisan is one of 28 daily crossings between the two ports each way run by CGN ferries. Some 600 people make this particular crossing every day.
I wandered around with my camera taking pictures, and struck up a conversation with a Swedish marketing director and an IT worker who were having a drink outside, sheltered from the strong breeze at the stern of the boat.
Both were returning to their homes in the Thonon area. We were out in the middle of the lake, where the border lies. “The border is not important,” the Swedish woman said. “We live and work in the same region.”
The journey is not always as pleasant as it was on that July day. “It can be magnificent, travelling when the sun is setting or rising,” the IT man said, “but in the winter, travelling both ways in the dark, we feel a bit like cattle.”
They both agreed that working in Switzerland is not complicated. It is not complicated because, after fifteen years of free movement of labour between Switzerland and the EU, Swiss employers are used to cross-border workers. All the necessary arrangements are in place, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, exemption from taxation at source, and coordination of social insurance systems. For more information on cross-border workers in Switzerland, see this summary.
The average age of the ferry passengers I travelled with was 30 to 50. The scooter riders queued at the door as the ferry docked, eager to get off first.
Thonon was lively the day before the French national holiday, with all generations out on the streets in a festive mood. The next morning I expected there to be much fewer people on the 6.30am ferry to Ouchy, Lausanne but it was still quite busy.
Understandably the atmosphere was more subdued, with some people already in work mode on their laptops, other sipping coffee and staring into space and a few tired souls with their heads down on their arms sleeping.
I chatted to some hospital staff from Lausanne’s university hospital CHUV. They were blasé about their special circumstances, as only French people can be blasé, but I left the ship impressed with the slice of life I had witnessed, and keen to understand more about the special relationship between Switzerland and the EU.
Do you have any experience of cross-border commuting in Switzerland or elsewhere? Have I painted too rosy a picture? I’d love to hear more first-hand perspectives on this.