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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What you should know about Switzerland’s banking secrecy

The mere mention of banking secrecy in Switzerland conjures up images of anonymous accounts and illicit cash hidden in vaults. But the reality is quite different.

What you should know about Switzerland's banking secrecy

Swiss bankers have a long reputation of being tight-lipped when it comes to divulging details about their clients’ accounts.

Over the years, however, this practice has become associated with illegal activities ranging from money laundering to tax evasion, which have tarnished Switzerland’s image, earning it the name of a ‘tax haven’ or ‘tax paradise’ where wealthy people stash their undeclared assets.

READ ALSO: Is Switzerland actually a tax haven?

However, under pressure from other countries, Switzerland adopted a tougher stance on foreign account holders in 2016, exchanging information with its foreign counterparts to ensure tax transparency.

This means that a foreign individual, whether residing in Switzerland or abroad, can no longer hide assets in a Swiss bank and hope their own country wouldn’t find out about it.

So, as far as foreigners are concerned, the days of bank secrecy are long gone.

But this practice is still intact for Swiss clients.

‘Client confidentiality’

Rather than calling this practice ‘banking secrecy’, the Swiss refer to it as ‘client confidentiality,” which has long-standing legal basis.

According to the government, this legislation “protects the financial privacy of citizens from unauthorised access by third parties or by the State.”

This is how the government explains it: “Banking secrecy arises from civil law, especially the contractual obligation of the banker to keep the personal information of his or her client confidential. The privacy of the client is also protected by the general provisions of the Swiss Civil Code concerning protection of personality and by the law on data protection. Moreover, under civil law, banking legislation considers the confidentiality of the banker to be a professional obligation, the violation of which is punishable.”

In other words, the bank not only must keep information about its Swiss accounts confidential, but could actually be punished if it divulges it.

OPINION: Switzerland’s respect for privacy has benefits but it also harms the country

Challenges to the law

Some Swiss politicians are speaking out against this long-standing practice.

“Now is the time to abolish banking secrecy in Switzerland,” according to Tobias Vögeli, president of the Young Green Liberals.

He argues that changing the law requiring banks to maintain confidentiality about their clients’ financial affairs would be “an effective instrument against tax evasion.”

His party will file a motion in the parliament to this effect in the near future.

However, this drastic change is not likely to happen — not only have some MPs already voiced their opposition to it — but the law provides for exemptions to bank secrecy.

“Numerous provisions of civil law, debt collection and bankruptcy law, criminal law, administrative criminal law, and mutual assistance in criminal matters provide for exceptions to banking secrecy,” the government says.

Accordingly, it can be lifted against the client’s will if ordered by court: “The Swiss financial center has comprehensive mechanisms at its disposal to defend against assets originating from criminal offenses. By international standards, the Swiss rules are very strict.»

In conclusion, if you are a Swiss citizen, your right to ‘financial privacy’ is guaranteed.

If, on the other hand you are a foreign national, your assets will be declared to your country of origin. 

READ ALSO: What can a Swiss bank demand of a foreign client?