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Geneva: What A Place To Cut World Trade Deal With AM-GATT-Trade, Bjt

December 10, 1993

GENEVA (AP) _ Walking along the Rue de Lausanne near the lake, it’s hard to imagine Geneva as the place where negotiators working beyond public view will decide the economic fate of millions of people.

Traffic lights take forever, even though the road is quiet, particularly after shops shut in the early evening. Some hotel workers apologetically tell weekend guests the bar and restaurant only open on week days. Buying deodorant or aspirin on a Sunday can take hours if you don’t know where to go.

Yet sleepy Geneva, where many apartment dwellers are told to keep things quiet by not flushing toilets after 10 p.m., has become the focal point for the world’s biggest free trade package.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade promises to add more than $200 billion a year to the world economy by easing import and export rules, assuming negotiators for 116 nations can resolve disputes by next Wednesday’s deadline.

But longtime expatriate residents of Geneva grumble that the world picked a strange place to write a new gospel of free trade.

True, Geneva is a big international center for diplomacy. But economic openness seems to be an alien concept in Switzerland, where a web of cartels stifles competition and a bureaucratic maze confounds many people.

Just ask Lee Godfrey, whose his family moved to Geneva while he was about to finish school in France at age 18.

After graduating, Godfrey tried to join his parents, but Swiss authorities decided that since Godfrey had legally become an adult in France, he could not stay. He now routinely crosses the border to visit his parents and Swiss girlfriend.

Godfrey called the free-trade talks going on at GATT’s nearby headquarters on Rue de Lausanne ″hypocrisy at its limit,″ because they are taking place in Switzerland.

Glen Simons, a transplanted Londoner, agrees.

″It’s very ironic. The Swiss people are very monopolistic in their own backyard. They cut off markets to everyone else.″

Simons is assistant manager at one of Switzerland’s few English-style drinking establishments, Mr. Pickwick Pub, also on Rue de Lausanne. The pub has a dartboard, but it’s missing a few other details, such as English cider and English potato chips, called ″crisps″ by the Brits, that Simons says he can’t get.

″You have to buy Swiss crisps,″ Simons said, citing local rules that benefit popular Swiss brands such as Zweifel chips.

The Swiss have a combination phone company and post office, PTT, that irks people who stand in long lines to pay for everything from parking tickets to electric bills.

PTT charges non-resident foreigners 500 Swiss francs to install a phone. Swiss citizens don’t have to pay.

″Customer service in Geneva? Not very good,″ said Bindu Kapur, who spent most of her life in the United States but now calls Geneva home. ″The concept that the customer is always right does not exist here. The customer is the anti-Christ.″

Many foreigners complain about a sense of Swiss superiority that pervades the culture. Controversy erupted this year when a new Geneva phone book came out, with a full-color cover cartoon of two Arabs stopping their luxury car to gawk at a gushing Lake Geneva water fountain.

″Petrole transparent,″ one of the Arabs says into his cellular phone. In a city where OPEC’s oil ministers often meet, prominent Arab businessmen weren’t amused.

In many ways the Swiss have liberal ideas about business. Swiss banks are known for taking anybody’s money with few questions asked. Switzerland provides shelter for financial fugitives including commodity trader Marc Rich, wanted in the United States on a variety of criminal charges.

Switzerland is slowly becoming more open to appease members of the neighboring European Community. Geneva’s French-speaking residents, virtually surrounded by France, are particularly interested in developing freer economic ties to the rest of Europe but they have been thwarted by Switzerland’s German-speaking majority.

While that issue simmers, the Swiss continue to make it difficult for foreigners to buy property under a law called ″Lex Friedrich,″ named after a former government minister.

Even when you go to your grave in Geneva, the system will likely come back to haunt you. The dead are often buried for just 20 years, then dug up and burned to make room for new cadavers.

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