"Look over there," said septuagenarian Bernadette Savarioud, grabbing her listener's arm and pointing to a small strip mall across the street.
"You know what they do behind that store?" She lowers her voice conspiratorially. "They sell drugs! Young people! Foreigners! And I won't even tell you what the teenage girls are doing. I don't even go out at night any more unless my daughter and granddaughter are with me."
For centuries, this neutral, landlocked nation kept itself clean, safe and prosperous by keeping its distance from the rest of the world and doing what it did best--making money. But today, Switzerland is neither as rich nor as safe as it used to be. And on Sunday, nearly 23 percent of Swiss voters, concerned in part over the onset of such social problems as Savarioud described, voted in parliamentary elections for a far-right party whose best known leader opposes new immigration and Switzerland's entry into the European Union.
It was a sharp increase for the Swiss People's Party, which received 14.9 percent of the popular vote in the 1995 election. Today in this blue-collar suburb of Geneva, where the population has been swelled by immigration in recent years, supporters and opponents of the People's Party agreed the vote was a sign that Switzerland is not the country it once was.
"I hear a lot of talk," said Francoise Dewaele, a pharmacist. "There are a lot of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in Onex, and they are not allowed to work. They get housing and money. So other people work and work and pay taxes and pay taxes and they get nothing. They are angry."
"There are many foreigners, and they're a little wild," said Marie-Louise Mathez. "They steal and they break in. And they are in a majority now." She did not say what she meant by majority. The number of asylum-seekers swelled to more than 100,000 this year, largely due to a flood of refugees from the conflict in Kosovo, but still only about one in five of this country's 7.3 million inhabitants is a foreigner.
Similar anti-immigrant feeling helped give Joerg Haider's anti-immigration Freedom Party 28 percent of the vote in elections in Austria three weeks ago, making it a possible partner in a revamped coalition government.
Switzerland, unlike Austria, has chosen not to join the European Union, in part because of fears that association with the 15-nation open-trade zone would give it too little control over its own borders. Switzerland is also not a member of the United Nations.
Until the election, the coalition government had been moving toward closer ties with the EU. But the People's Party and Christoph Blocher, the charismatic leader of its Zurich branch, campaigned hard against any association with Europe, and Blocher reiterated today that his party would stand firm against association with the EU.
That is painful for many here in French-speaking Switzerland, which traditionally has turned more to Europe and the outside world than Switzerland's German-speaking regions--which are a majority.
The vote "makes Switzerland look bad. It makes us look like we are off in our corner," said Eva Thormbert, a widow. "Switzerland is too closed."
Indeed, the vote seemed likely to polarize further Switzerland's three linguistic groups, German, French and Italian. Although the People's Party made its best showing yet in French-speaking regions, including in Onex, it still was far below its gain in German-speaking Switzerland.
The front page headline in Le Temps of Geneva was: "The French Faction Is Going to Suffer."
Walter Kaelin, a law professor at the University of Bern, said many votes for the People's Party came from supporters of other far-right factions, not of the left or middle. The effect in Switzerland's coalition governing process is likely to be muted, Kaelin said. The most profound effect may be that the Swiss now feel freer to say that immigrants are a burden to society.
"I got my hair cut this morning and my barber said he didn't like to vote for Blocher but it was necessary because some foreigners are friends but many foreigners are criminals," Kaelin said. "Many people feel insecure, and Blocher provides easy answers."
Many in Onex voiced similar sentiments.
"I'm the last Swiss taxi driver in Switzerland," said Alex Maeder, banging the wheel for emphasis. "I voted for the People's Party. We have more foreigners than any other country in Europe. They stay here for a year and when they go home we buy their ticket. Is this my country or not?"