Swiss anguish over racism as foreigners face 'fondue test'

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Oezcan Oezbey may not be everyone's idea of a Swiss, but after 18 years in Switzerland, the 23-year-old laboratory technician feels more at home here than in his native Turkey.

Oezcan Oezbey may not be everyone's idea of a Swiss, but after 18 years in Switzerland, the 23-year-old laboratory technician feels more at home here than in his native Turkey.

This worries his neighbours. When they were asked whether Mr Oezbey should be allowed to become a Swiss citizen, they said no.

The Swiss pride themselves on centuries of people's power, which includes the right to decide who can be a citizen of their local community. Without that, foreigners cannot get a Swiss passport.

Mr Oezbey does not have one, because the people of Pratteln, a small industrial town on the edge of Basel, voted against him and every other Turk and Yugoslav on the list - 47 in all. Only Italians and Spaniards met their approval.

"It was a cry for help," explains Rudolf Pfirter, head of Pratteln's local government. "The people felt the country was being flooded by foreigners. So they pulled the emergency brake."

If it was a cry for help, it was certainly heard. Since the famous mass blackballing of Pratteln three years ago, other towns and villages have adopted the habit.

In March this year, for instance, in the town of Emmen outside Lucerne, 48 Turks and Yugoslavs were rejected in the same manner. Human rights organisations call it "racial selection".

Some of that, of course, has always gone on. Naturalisation is a rigorous process, intended to weed out all but the most assimilated immigrants. The rules insist on residence of more than 10 years and clean police records.

The labyrinthine procedure involves probing searches. Applicants must show evidence that they are fully integrated. What that means is at the discretion of their local parish.

Some communities visit the homes of wannabe Swiss, checking whether they meet Swiss standards of hygiene. Occasionally, officials look in the kitchen to see what's cooking - the so-called "fondue test". On such visiting days, it is advisable to go easy on the garlic.

Mr Oezbey was not subjected to such humiliation, because, by Swiss standards, Pratteln is an enlightened town. He was merely summoned to a panel and quizzed on his knowledge of Swiss tradition, culture and politics.

Since he speaks like a native and has a respectable job at a big pharmaceutical company in Basel, he passed the test with flying colours. There was nothing left but the formality of the vote.

How did Mr Oezbey feel when he was told the result? The strongest word that comes to his mild-mannered Swiss lips is "disappointed". "I spent most of my childhood and entire youth in Pratteln," he says. "So I asked myself - am I undesirable here?

"I don't feel like a guest. I work here, I pay no less tax than a Swiss, but have fewer rights."

It does seem a little unfair. Yet it has taken Mr Oezbey three years to force the good burghers of Pratteln to reconsider their decision.

After a series of fruitless challenges, the constitutional court of Basel region, influenced by nationwide outrage over the goings-on in Emmen, agreed that Pratteln's decision had been arbitrary. The town will now have to vote again about Mr Oezbey's citizenship.

His partial victory and similar battles just unfolding in other communities have shaken the entire country. The city of Geneva has offered citizenship to the Emmen 48, while each of the three layers of Swiss government hastily tries to find ways to bypassracist citizens.

Thanks to a generous asylum policy in recent years, about one-fifth of Switzerland's population are foreigners. Racial tensions are rising.

As Swiss voters drift to the far right - 23 per cent at elections last October - politicians are urgently seeking ways to re-establish the country's traditional harmony.

But Pratteln and the other towns have shattered the immigrants' dream of blending in. What's the point of all that self-denial, Swiss ask, in the name of "integration", if a few dozen bigoted voters can scupper the efforts of a decade?

The federal government in Bern would love to help, and is indeed compelled to do so under international conventions banning racism.

One solution being touted is to remove the people's prerogative over citizenship, and pass it on to local officials. But that would be the end of democracy as the Swiss have known it for hundreds of years.

As he awaits the verdict of his peers, Mr Oezbey does not concern himself with the constitutional crisis he has unleashed. But he has been embittered by the experience.

"I don't think I'd go through this again, and certainly not in Pratteln," he says. His two brothers have no plans to apply for Swiss citizenship.