Being Geneva: those unfamiliar with the custom of having a human embodiment of the State present on ceremonial occasions are astonished to see Geneva's top officials accompanied by a person wearing a cape and Napoleon-style hat. Swiss News talks to Paul-Henri Perrin about the ins and outs of personifying Geneva.

AuteurMangold-Vine, Gail

None of the dictionary options--usher, monitor, beadle, or bailiff--adequately conveys what 'huissierchef Paul-Henri Perrin does.

Some 200 times a year, he or one of his fellow 'huissiers' don a voluminous cape in the Geneva colours--red and yellow--with an impressive pewter crest and tasselled ties that look like drapery pulls, and a black 'bicorne' hat elaborately trimmed with a red and yellow rosette and braid, to become the living symbol of the Republic and Canton of Geneva.

The dramatic effect is even greater when the 'huissier' is carrying the 'mace du sautier', a gold encrusted, globe-beaded baton. Found on the baton are the enamelled crests of all 45 of Canton Geneva's communes, pebbles from its rivers, a chip off Mont-Blanc brought back by distinguished Geneva naturalist Horace Benedict de Saussure after his 1787 ascent, and a sliver of an Ice Age stone.

Huissiers stand with feet slightly apart and set firmly on the ground and create a solid impression that makes "people think we're some sort of honour guard and don't do anything else," Perrin says with a laugh. This, however, couldn't be further from the truth.

When The Cape's Off

Scene: Geneva's Hotel de Ville, not City Hall as the name indicates but the seat of the cantonal government. The 'huissiers' headed by Perrin work out of an office located along the famous horse ramp leading up from the Hotel de Ville's courtyard, on the same floor where the government's executive and legislative arms convene.

In his headquarters off the entrance hall, Paul-Henri Perrin is transformed from silent symbol of the Republic into a voluble monument to multitasking. In shirtsleeves, a uniform blazer ready to slip on when needed, he waves a reporter in as he ends a call with "Send me an e-mail!" Along with the two cell phones attached to his belt, he has a bundle of keys to unlock the formidable array of closets holding items needed by the constant stream of people seeking him out.

Even as he fields questions Perrin never stops pulling strings. He assigns meeting rooms, coordinates VIP arrivals, handles catering details, while adjusting his own and his subordinates' cape-donning schedules.

Concierge and floor manager rolled into one, he is a hub, monitoring who goes in and out, organising errands, messages, requests, deliveries, dispatches, often blitzing calls to an elaborate network of contacts to make things happen. He is at once a filter and a master facilitator.

Conveying the Dignity of the...

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