Canton Jura : Secession
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From the 1940s to the 1970s, Switzerland underwent serious political crisis, as a group of disaffected, historically marginalized people from the Jura pushed the flexibility of Swiss democracy to its limits. The origins of the conflict can be dated back to the 1815 Congress of Vienna which handed the area to Canton Bern. Bern welcomed the Protestants who lived in Biel/Bienne and the southern districts of the Jura around Moutier, and was powerful enough to ignore the destitute French-speaking Catholic peasants of the northern districts around Delémont and Porrentruy. Bernese moved into the area, bringing a new language and culture with them. Economic boom in the nineteenth century brought prosperity to Biel/Bienne, and largely passed Porrentruy by – but any rumblings of discontent in the north were quelled by the extreme hardship suffered by the whole region in the depression of the 1930s.

On September 20, 1947, a Jurassien member of Bern’s parliament was refused election to the cantonal government because he spoke French. The outrage that followed led to the formation of a hardline anti-Bern grouping, which commanded popular support throughout the northern districts, and which got enough backing to force an extremely controversial cantonalreferendum on splitting the Jura away from Bern. The voters of Canton Bern unsurprisingly rejected the proposal. However, it surprised the separatists that Jura too had voted against it: Porrentruy, Delémont and Saignelégier had supported separation two-to-one, but Moutier and its neighbours had rejected it by three-to-one. The francophone, separatist Catholics of the north, a minority both within Protestant, German-speaking Bern as a whole but also within the Jura itself, decided to resort to direct action.

The late 1960s were taken up with obscure and complex attempts by Canton Bern to solve the problem, none of which garnered any support in the Jura. Hardliners became more entrenched in their demands for out-and-out secession, and paramilitaries – with their slogan “Jura libre” – stepped up their campaigns, seizing a police station in Delémont, the Swiss Embassy in Paris, sabotaging Bern’s trams, and, in a show of support for Walloon separatists, simultaneously storming the Belgian Embassy in Bern and the Swiss Embassy in Brussels. In 1973, Bern’s cantonal government accepted terms for a referendum on separation, and on June 23, 1974, over ninety percent of eligible voters turned out, with a majority backing separation.

This shocked the Protestant southern districts of the Jura to the core, and immediately afterwards a pro-Bern, anti-separatist bloc formed, threatening violence against the Catholics of the north and demanding another referendum to allow the south to detach itself from the Jurassien independence movement and remain part of Bern. On March 16, 1975, this proposal was carried, but with a majority in Moutier of just 286 votes. Amidst the accusations of manipulation that followed, a pro-Jura demonstration turned into a full-scale riot, with 800 militants involved in an all-night running battle with police. Discontent simmered throughout the year, bursting into violence again in September.

Nonetheless, after a series of commune-by-commune referenda, popular opinion was shown to favour both the formation of a new canton in the north, and the adherence of the south to Bern. The split was inevitable. Moutier remained in Bern, and a new Canton Jura came into existence on January 1, 1979. Individual communes continued to shift over the next two decades: in 1989, the residents of Laufenthal voted to leave Bern and join Canton Basel-Land, and in 1995, Vellerat (population 70) voted to leave Bern and join Canton Jura.

As Jonathan Steinberg notes in his excellent book Why Switzerland?, it was this minute concentration on opinion within the tiniest linguistic, cultural or ethnic units, as well as a political structure able to take such micro-referenda into account, that meant that the Swiss could address Jurassien discontent, allow it to be expressed (with a minimum of violence and no casualties) and then have the flexibility to incorporate it into a new national order. Most countries facing similar discontent have neither the political structures nor the flexibility to effect similar solutions.

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