LONDON — As he prepares to become Switzerland’s economics minister, Guy Parmelin is facing widespread criticism of his skills — in speaking English.
The Federal Council, the Swiss executive body, announced last week that Mr. Parmelin would be the next head of the Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, a job that involves negotiating accords with other countries and with bodies like the European Union.
The news prompted a wave of commentary from news outlets and on social media, much of it mocking — a reflection of how thoroughly English has become the language of international diplomacy and business. Among world leaders, a command of English is often taken for granted, even when translators are present.
Critics recalled what Mr. Parmelin, a former grower of wine grapes, told reporters before he joined the Federal Council in 2015. “I can English understand but…” he said in English, before switching to his native tongue to add, “I prefer responding in French to be more precise.”
A cartoon by Patrick Chappatte (whose work also appears in The New York Times) in the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag showed Mr. Parmelin under a Christmas tree, distressed because the instructions for his new position came in English.
A senior editor for the same newspaper, Francesco Benini, wrote that Britain’s biggest challenge in leaving the European Union would be negotiating a trade deal with Mr. Parmelin.
Urs Widmer, a spokesman for Mr. Parmelin, told Swiss news outlets that he was surprised by the reaction to his boss’s language skills. He said that Mr. Parmelin, a member of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, had conducted almost all bilateral discussions on cybersecurity in English during his time as defense minister.
Switzerland prides itself on being a country with four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. Most people speak German or French as a first language — many speak both — and nearly all children take English classes in school.
Traditionally, federal officials who primarily speak either German or French have been expected to understand, but not necessarily to speak, both languages. Mr. Parmelin has also been criticized for his weak German skills.
In meetings people often speak French and German in the same discussion, depending on which one they feel more comfortable with.
But Mr. Parmelin “is not the first or the last of the federal councilors who was made fun of for his deficient language competences,” said Daniel Kubler, a professor of political science at the University of Zurich.
Language skills became an issue this fall for another politician, Hans Wicki of the liberal party FDP. Campaigning for a seat on the federal council, he was asked about his command of French and attempted to answer in that language.
“Yes of course, I speak French but I’m not a, a … ” he told reporters, pausing at length before finishing the sentence in his native German: “translator, like Karin Keller-Sutter,” his rival for the seat.
The Federal Assembly elected Ms. Keller-Sutter, a professional interpreter and an FDP member, to the post.
Reacting to the appointment of Mr. Parlemin, the newspaper 24 Heures asked other politicians how important a grasp of English was, and whether Mr. Parlemin’s predecessor could have negotiated a trade deal with China without speaking English well.
The article quoted Micheline Calmy-Rey, a native French speaker who has been foreign minister for almost a decade. She spoke little German or English when she took office, but realized she had to make progress quickly.
“In official meetings there is always translation. But during lunches or more informal meetings, it is essential to be able to communicate in English,” she told 24 Heures. “Otherwise it’s a handicap.”
The daily Le Temps reported that in high-tech industries that operate largely in English, there was concern about Mr. Parmelin’s ability to handle trade talks.
Georg Lutz, a professor of political science at the University of Lausanne, noted that Mr. Parmelin’s portfolio would include research, education and related accords with the international groups like the European Union. Meetings, conferences and courses often take place in English.
“English has become a requirement, and especially for smaller countries, which tend to have a more open economy,” he said. “And the language of business is English nowadays.”