Historic Swiss lakeside villa spruced up for Biden-Putin talks

Wednesday's Geneva summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will take place in a plush 18th-century lakeside villa steeped in the Swiss city's history.

Historic Swiss lakeside villa spruced up for Biden-Putin talks
The Villa La Grange, set in Geneva's biggest park which slopes down to the shore, is well used to hosting showpiece events -- but the Biden-Putin talks will rank as the most high-powered of them all. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The Villa La Grange, set in Geneva’s biggest park which slopes down to the shore, is well used to hosting showpiece events — but the Biden-Putin talks will rank as the most high-powered of them all.

The mansion, spruced up for the occasion, has played a part in landmark international agreements before, notably the first Geneva Convention.

And words said on its lawns by a former world leader resonate today ahead of the US-Russia summit. “We can establish an even deeper and more effective relationship,” said pope Paul VI in 1969.

‘Feeling of excitement’: Americans in Switzerland welcome Joe Biden’s visit

Addressing a crowd of 70,000 in front of the villa, the pontiff evoked the opposing forces of love and hate and called for “generous peacemakers”. 

Lakeside location 

The setting is spectacular.

Views from the three-storey classical mansion sweep down over the Parc de La Grange, across Lake Geneva towards the United Nations and the Jura mountains beyond.

The villa has been a whirlwind of activity in preparation for the summit, with vehicles scurrying in and out of the park.

The paint has been touched up and the chandeliers polished, while antique furniture has been rearranged to make way for the two presidents.

The scene is set in the showpiece library: two wooden armchairs clad in red leather have been set either side of a globe, against a backdrop of brown and gold tones.

Two imposing stone lions — freshly scrubbed down with pressure hoses — guard the main entrance gates to the 20-hectare park. In the immaculately-manicured gardens, new turf has been rolled out to cover any bare patches.

During the summer, the gardens would typically be filled by picnickers.

But the chances of anyone getting in and breaking out some Gruyere cheese and a bottle of local Genevois wine on Wednesday will be somewhat slim.

The park has been closed off and ringed with barbed wire-topped steel fencing, while hundreds of troops and security officers will guard the site.

The Villa La Grange, set in Geneva’s biggest park which slopes down to the
shore, is well used to hosting showpiece events — but the Biden-Putin talks
will rank as the most high-powered of them all. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Villa a bibliophile’s dream

The grand, classical villa was owned by Genevan patrician families and was ultimately bequeathed to the city. On rare occasions, the public can take guided tours that take in the library, reception rooms and bedrooms.

The estate was created in the 1660s by the merchant Jacques Franconis.

Marc Lullin, a banker, bought it in 1706 and three of his sons built the French-style mansion and its surrounding buildings between 1768 and 1773.

Banker Jean Lullin, having been ruined by the French Revolution, sold it in 1800 to Francois Favre, a Geneva ship owner who made his fortune trading with the East from the French port of Marseille.

The Favre family transformed the house and park, adding the large library which contains some 15,000 books belonging to Francois’ son Guillaume.

The oldest volumes date back to the 15th century and the collection is especially strong in history, literature, and ancient languages.

The villa held a gala in 1864 for the diplomats who signed the first Geneva Convention governing the treatment of sick and wounded combatants. 

Call for peace 

Guillaume’s grandson William Favre bequeathed the villa and the estate to the city in 1917, with the house to be used for civic receptions.

When he died the following year, he also left the library collection to Geneva in his will. The park opened to the public in 1918.

A reception was held at the villa in 1921 for the first Red Cross conference after World War I.

The meeting reflected on experiences from the Great War and, for the first time, mandated the organisation to assist victims in civil wars too.

The June 10, 1969 papal visit to Geneva, the epicentre of Calvinism, saw Pope Paul hold an open-air mass in the gardens, with his homily containing words that Biden and Putin could draw upon.

“Here is Switzerland offering us, once again, a moment of relaxation and reflection,” the pontiff said.

Peace, he said, was “not a weakness, but a strength. “Let us strive to be generous peacemakers,” he concluded.

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Why do foreigners in Switzerland trust the government more than the Swiss?

People living in Switzerland have a high level of trust in their public authorities. This pertains not only to Swiss citizens, but to foreigners as well.

Why do foreigners in Switzerland trust the government more than the Swiss?

Unlike citizens of many countries around the world who mistrust their elected officials, the Swiss are different.

A study published in 2020 by the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) shows that “confidence in the national government in Switzerland is the highest among OECD countries…85 percent of respondents reported trust in government in Switzerland, in comparison to an average of 51 percent among OECD countries.”

This high level of trust can be seen in various areas of life, such as in public finances, healthcare, justice, and education.

The reason for this vote of confidence is that, unlike other countries, the Swiss have a direct say in how their government works. Their system of grassroots democracy allows them to make decisions about what legislation should be enacted and which laws should be rejected — in other words, they create the policies that impact their lives.

READ MORE:  How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

So this confidence in the government on the part of Switzerland’s citizens is not surprising.

What is surprising, however, is a finding of another study showing that immigrants to Switzerland have a higher level of trust in the state than the Swiss themselves.

Most of the foreigners surveyed said they have either “high” or “very high” faith in Swiss institutions, which include, for the purpose of the study, the Federal Council, the parliament, the government/cantonal administration, the authorities of the commune of residence, and the courts in Switzerland.

The participants included both immigrants and dual nationals — that is, foreigners who have both Swiss and foreign passports.

How can these results be explained?

A more detailed analysis of the responses revealed that the majority of foreigners who placed high faith in Swiss institutions came from countries where the government and the political system are less pro-people than in Switzerland.

On the whole, these immigrants appreciate Swiss system of democracy and the way public institutions function, in addition to all the economic benefits they get when working in Switzerland.

This, however, is not the whole picture.

The survey also showed that even people from northern and western Europe, whose governments are democratic in their own right, also have a high regard for the Swiss system.

As one Swiss media outlet commented, “this suggests that other, more subjective factors are at work. ” 

Like the government, but not so much the Swiss

While foreigners give thumbs-up to Switzerland’s public institutions, they are less enthralled with the Swiss people.

Many foreigners who live in Switzerland say locals are aloof and unfriendly toward them.

While certainly true in some cases, in others it seems to be more of an urban myth than a fact.

In 2021, The Local reached out to readers to ask about their integration experiences – and whether they found making friends to be difficult. 

One longtime resident of Geneva, who is originally from the United States, found that most Swiss are not unfriendly or suspicious of foreigners.

Rather, they approach friendships the same way they do everything else: slowly and cautiously.

“It’s not in their nature to make friends immediately, like Americans do,” she told The Local, based on her own experience.

“The Swiss have the innate sense of privacy — their own and other people’s. That’s why it takes them longer to befriend someone and trust them.”.

She said this is more the case with the older generation accustomed to rules of social etiquette, adding: “Young people are more open and spontaneous in this regard.”

Others did confirm that establishing social relationships with the Swiss is difficult.

READ MORE : ‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?