Culture, Heritage and Diversity


Committing to diversity: Neuchâtel’s citizenship charter



With 170 000 inhabitants spanning some 140 nationalities, the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel lies in north-western Switzerland in the Jura mountains. Neuchâtel is one of the 26 cantons of Switzerland and, like Geneva, Vaud, Fribourg and Jura, is French-speaking. Neuchâtel canton is a member of the “Intercultural Cities” network. Ever since the pilot phase of the programme in 2008, the city has proved remarkably adept and innovative when it comes to intercultural integration policies1. This success is due, inter alia, to the pioneering role played by Neuchâtel canton in Swiss policy for integrating foreign nationals.


Not only, for example, was Neuchâtel the first Swiss canton to appoint a cantonal commissioner for foreign nationals, in 1990, but in 1996 it also passed the first cantonal law on the integration of foreigners. Neuchâtel grants foreign nationals more civil rights than any other canton in Switzerland: voting rights at municipal level since 1848, voting rights at cantonal level since 2000 and the right to vote or stand for election to the executive and the legislature at municipal level since 2007.


The Citizenship Charter

The Neuchâtel Constitution of 24 September 2000 defines Neuchâtel canton as a “democratic, secular, social state that guarantees fundamental rights”. It was to help newcomers, as well as established residents, to better understand the principles and foundations of the Swiss Confederation and Neuchâtel canton and to realise their civic potential, whatever their nationality, that the Citizenship Charter was drawn up and introduced in 2009.


It is clear that the Charter enjoys a high degree of political and institutional legitimacy among the cantonal authorities. It was drawn up by Neuchâtel canton’s Multicultural Cohesion Service (Service de la cohésion multiculturelle, COSM) with the help of the law faculty of Neuchâtel University and the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (Forum suisse pour l’étude des migrations et de la population, SFM). The drafting process was closely followed by a committee of the Working Party for the Integration of Foreigners (Communauté de travail pour l’intégration des étrangers, CTIE). The draft Charter was then discussed and approved by the State Council (the cantonal government), and was also debated by the Grand Council (the cantonal parliament). In recognition of its merits, moreover, the Charter has been granted an award by the Swiss Society of Administrative Sciences (Société Suisse des Sciences Administratives, SSA) and the Institute of Higher Studies in Public Administration (l’Institut des Hautes Études en Administration Publique, IDHEAP).


A pioneering concept

The Charter breaks new ground in that it is designed to foster intercultural integration, in contradistinction to the integration agreements that one finds in Germany, for example. The latter are a sort of contract between the authorities and the migrant, requiring him or her to fulfil certain obligations, with the emphasis on the formal, binding aspect. They tend to be used in very specific cases, e.g. foreign nationals taking up high religious office or migrants who have committed criminal offences of some gravity. In contrast, Neuchâtel canton’s Citizenship Charter focuses on reciprocity between the migrant and society, while at the same time emphasising the basic values of democratic society. The Charter further emphasises “the notion of welcome” and mutual respect, which contribute to greater acceptance of the obligations associated with integration.


Central to the Charter is the idea of tolerance and open-mindedness as a way of ensuring stability in mixed communities. The vision of Neuchâtel canton as a “democratic, secular, social state that guarantees fundamental rights” is also explained in the Charter, in particular vis-à-vis newcomers.


As a democratic state, for example, the canton grants foreign nationals aged 18 and older who possess a residence permit (C permit) the right to participate in direct democracy, i.e. to vote in cantonal elections after at least five years’ residence in the canton and to vote and stand in municipal elections after at least one year’s residence in the canton.


As a secular state, the canton guarantees religious freedom and the right to manifest one’s beliefs, including in a visible manner, except for public officials in the performance of their duties. Accordingly, teachers are required to observe the principle of religious neutrality in public schools whereas pupils are permitted, for example, to wear the Muslim headscarf in class. In addition, the canton grants three Christian churches (Reformed, Roman Catholic and Christian Catholic) the status of public institutions.


As a social state, the canton guarantees the social rights that are essential for ensuring respect for human dignity, namely the right to minimum living conditions and the right to sufficient and free basic education.


Lastly, as the guarantor of fundamental rights, the canton protects rights and freedoms in the private sphere such as the right to life and to personal freedom, the right to marry, freedom of language; freedom of communication, including the right to information and freedom of association, assembly and demonstration; and economic freedoms such as the guarantee of ownership, economic freedom and the right to form and join trade unions. All freedoms have their limits, however. Freedom of language, to give just one example, implies not only the right of the canton’s 140 or so nationalities to express themselves in the language of their choosing but also encouragement from the canton to learn French, the official language of the canton, with a view to becoming integrated into the local community.


The freedoms conferred on new citizens go hand in hand, of course, with certain responsibilities, ranging from respect for others and civic-mindedness to sorting one’s waste and paying for newspapers taken from vending machines.


Target group

The Charter is directed first and foremost at migrants, i.e. new arrivals (whether from other parts of Switzerland, Europe or third countries), new citizens, naturalised persons and participants in French language or integration courses, as well as leaders and members of foreign communities.


Copies of the charter are handed out against signature. Signing does not create a binding legal obligation but it does underline the importance of the document. Experience shows that, contrary to expectations, most new arrivals are quite happy to sign the acknowledgement of receipt, with only a few refusing to do so.


The launch of the Charter in 2009 was preceded by a series of courses and individual sessions over a period of 2 days for municipal agencies and officials, so that they would be able to deliver the Citizenship Charter in an informed manner.


What next?

The results of the first external assessment of the Citizenship Charter conducted in March 2011 were very encouraging. The municipal agencies interviewed as part of the assessment (four municipalities so far, namely Landeron, Locle, Neuchâtel and Val-de-Travers) described the Charter as a very welcome addition to the existing arrangements for receiving new arrivals. What’s more, the Charter was seen as being an inclusive, long-term instrument that could be replicated in other cantons and even other countries.


The Citizenship Charter clearly embodies the principles of intercultural integration and has considerable replication potential. In the current political environment, however, the Charter also poses a democratic challenge. Whether politicians will be capable of rising to this challenge remains to be seen.


The Citizenship Charter of the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel is available at: 


Interview with Mr Facchinetti, Cantonal Commissioner for Foreign Nationals


 Christina BAGLAI


1. According to the results of the Intercultural Cities Index, the city of Neuchâtel achieved 93% of the goals set in the fourteen policy areas relating to intercultural integration, which means that Neuchâtel is ranked first out of the 45 cities currently participating in the Intercultural Cities programme.