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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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POLITICS

What are the local referendums in Geneva and Zurich that will impact you?

In addition to two federal referendums on pensions, citizens in the cantons of Geneva and Zurich will head to the ballot box on March 3rd to vote on various matters of local importance.

What are the local referendums in Geneva and Zurich that will impact you?

Due to Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, legislative changes and changes to the cantonal and federal constitutions are decided through referendums. 

READ MORE: Direct democracy: How do Switzerland’s referendums actually work?

Let’s look at Geneva and Zurich, two cantons that have a high proportion of foreign residents.

Geneva

The biggest question on the ballot in Geneva on March 3rd relates to the Praille-Acacias-Vernets (PAV) urban development. 

Building law will need to be made to increase the number of condominiums that can be built on the site and restrict ownership to occupying tenants. 

The changes seek to increase apartment ownership in the region. 

A proposed halving of the tax on automobiles, introduced by the conservative Swiss People’s Party, will also be voted upon.

Another question seeks to reduce the number of signatures needed to change the constitution or instigate a referendum – currently at 3 and 2 percent of the population, respectively. They would be reduced to 2 and 1.5  percent if successful. 

These figures are adjusted and voted on yearly; Geneva is the only canton to do this. 

Finally, voters will decide whether ‘Cé qu’è lainô‘, Geneva’s unofficial anthem, will be enshrined in the constitution. With a whopping 62 verses, it recounts how the people of Geneva repulsed a Savoyard invasion in 1602. 

Zurich

Two questions dominate debate among those that the citizens of Zurich will vote on March 3rd. 

Primarily, voters will decide whether two runways at Zürich Airport will be lengthened by 480 and 200 metres, respectively. This is in response to a federal report following a near-miss between two Swissair aircraft in 2011. 

Voters will also vote on an initiative introduced by the Young SVP, the youth wing of the Switzerland’s conservative party. 

If passed, the ‘Anti-Chaoten’ measure would require protestors to obtain a permit for any planned demonstrations and hold them responsible for any costs incurred through property damage or additional required policing. 

READ MORE: Why has Switzerland set dates for referendums up to the year 2042?

A third referendum will decide whether a continuous pedestrian and cycling path will be established around Lake Zurich by 2050 at the cantonal government’s expense, with work done to secure and beautify the lake shore.

Finally, enhanced requirements will be put to the vote for those seeking to be elected to Zurich’s highest cantonal courts. If this constitutional amendment is successful, appointees must reside within the canton, have a law degree, and compulsorily retire at age 68. 

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