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By the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1815), Swiss neutrality was guaranteed for all time. A subsequent economic depression, which caused large-scale emigration to North and South America, and generally reactionary rule contributed to widely successful demands for revision of the cantonal constitutions and the rise of the Radical party, which favored greater centralization. Opposition to centralization centered in the Catholic rural cantons, which in 1845 formed the Sonderbund, a defensive alliance. After a brief and almost bloodless civil war (1847) the victorious Radicals transformed the confederation into one federal state under a new constitution adopted in 1848 (and recast in 1874). National unity grew, and much socialist legislation (such as railroad nationalization and social insurance) was enacted.
Armed neutrality was maintained throughout World Wars I and II. Switzerland was a member of the League of Nations, and although it has long participated in many activities of the United Nations, it did not become a UN member until 2002 for fear that its neutrality would be compromised. Since 1959 Switzerland has been governed by a four-party center-conservative coalition. In the same year Switzerland became a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and in 1972 it signed an industrial free-trade agreement with the European Community (EC; since 1993 the European Union).
In the 1950s, French-speaking inhabitants of the Jura region of Bern canton unsuccessfully demanded, with some violence, the creation of a Jura canton. In 1977 a constitution was accepted, and in 1979 it officially became the twenty-third canton of the Swiss Confederation. In 1971, after a referendum was passed by male voters, women were given the right to vote and be elected at the federal level; subsequently, Elisabeth Kopp of the Radical Democratic party became the first woman government minister (1984-88).
In a 1986 plebiscite, a parliamentary proposal to join the United Nations was rejected by Swiss voters. In 1992, Swiss voters also rejected participation in the European Economic Area, an EFTA-EC common market, but did approve joining the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The rejection of the European Economic Area led to negotiations that resulted in a package of accords that established closer economic links with the European Union; voters approved the agreements in 2000.
Following charges that stolen assets deposited in Swiss banks by Nazis during World War II had not been properly returned, the country's two largest banks agreed in 1998 to pay $1.25 billion to the families of Holocaust victims; the banks had been facing lawsuits in the United States and were under international political pressure. Ruth Dreifuss, Switzerland's first woman president, served in the annually rotated post during 1999. In elections in Oct, 1999, the right-wing, nationalist People's party made sizable gains; this was regarded in part as a reaction to international criticism of Switzerland's role in World War II. Despite the turn to the right, in Mar., 2002, Swiss voters approved joining the United Nations, becoming the one of the last nations to seek membership in that organization (only Vatican City is not a member). In the Oct., 2003, elections the People's party made further gains, becoming the largest party in the national council.
Despite diverse ethnic groups, religions, and languages, Switzerland has maintained the world's oldest democracy for some 700 years. It is a federal state with two legislative houses; its head of state and government is the president of the federal council. The original inhabitants were the Helvetians, who were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC. Germanic tribes penetrated the region from the 3rd to the 6th century AD, and Muslim and Magyar raiders ventured in during the 10th century. It came under the rule of the Franks in the 9th century and the medieval empire (later the Holy Roman Empire) in the 11th century. In 1291 three cantons formed an anti-Habsburg league that became the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. It was a centre of the Reformation, which divided the confederation and led to a period of political and religious conflict. The French organized Switzerland as the Helvetic Republic in 1798. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna recognized Swiss independence and guaranteed its neutrality.