Cordon sanitaire

[Fr. kawr-dawn sa-nee-ter]
Cordon sanitaire is a French phrase that, literally translated, means quarantine line. Though in French it originally denoted a barrier implemented to stop the spread of disease, its use in English is almost always metaphorical and political, and refers to attempts to prevent the spread of an ideology deemed unwanted or dangerous, such as the containment policy adopted by George F. Kennan against the Soviet Union.


French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is credited with the first use of the phrase as a metaphor for ideological containment. In March 1919 , he urged the newly independent border states that had broken away from Bolshevist Russia to form a defensive union and thus quarantine the spread of communism to Western Europe; he called such an alliance a cordon sanitaire. This is still probably the most famous use of the phrase, though it is sometimes used more generally to describe a set of buffer states that form a barrier against a larger, ideologically hostile state. According to historian André Fontaine, Clemenceau's cordon sanitaire marked the real beginning of the Cold War: thus, it would have started in 1919 and not in 1947 as most historians contend it did.

Electoral politics

Beginning in the late 1980s, the term was introduced into the discourse on parliamentary politics by Belgian commentators. At that time, the Flemish nationalist and right wing Vlaams Blok party began to make significant electoral gains. Because the Vlaams Blok was catalogued as a racist group, the other Belgian political parties committed to exclude the party from any coalition government, even if that forced the formation of grand coalition governments between ideological rivals. Commentators dubbed this agreement Belgium's cordon sanitaire. In 2004, its successor party, Vlaams Belang changed its party platform to allow it to comply with the law. While no formal new “cordon sanitaire” agreement has been signed against it, it nevertheless remains uncertain whether any mainstream Belgian party will enter into coalition talks with Vlaams Belang in the near future. Several members of various Flemish parties have questioned the viability of the cordon sanitaire. Critics of the cordon sanitaire claim that it is also undemocratic.

With the electoral success of extremist parties on the left and right in recent European history, the term has been transferred to agreements similar to the one struck in Belgium:

  • After German reunification, East Germany's former ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED), reinvented itself first (in 1990) as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and then (in 2005 before the elections) as the Left Party, in order to merge with the new group WASG that had emerged in the West. Over the past fifteen years, all other German political parties have consistently refused to consider forming a coalition with the PDS/Left Party on a federal level, while on state levels, so-called red-red coalitions with the SPD were formed. This applied only to a few former GDR states in the north-east until since 2001, such a coalition also took over the city-state of Berlin, considered by some a late triumph of those who had built the Berlin Wall. The possibility of such a coalition became a crucial aspect of the campaigns before and the negotiations after the 2005 elections to the German Bundestag: theoretically, the outgoing SPD-Green government could have stayed in power by forming a tri-partisan coalition, with either the Left Party or the FDP. As the FDP had declined such a traffic light coalition in advance and the SPD had promised beforehand not to extend the red-red coalitions to federal level, the SPD had to choose the sole remaining option, entering a grand coalition with conservative parties. As the CDU had gained more votes, this gave them the chancellorship.
  • In the Netherlands, a parliamentary cordon sanitaire was put around the Centre Democrats. When its leader Hans Janmaat was set to speak, most other parliamentarians would leave the Chamber.
  • Some (though not all) of the Non-Inscrits members of the European Parliament are unaffiliated because they are considered to lie too far on the right or left of the political spectrum to be acceptable to any of the European Parliament party groups.
  • In France, the policy of non-cooperation with Front National together with the majoritarian electoral system leads to the fact, that FN is permanently underrepresented in Parliament (e. g. 0 seats out of 577 in 2002 elections, despite its receiving 11.3% of the vote).
  • In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party is effectively excluded from any possible coalition because of strong anti-Communism present in most political parties, including the Social Democrats. Also a cordon sanitaire was put around the Republicans of Miroslav Sládek, when they were active in the Parliament (1992-1998). When any of its members was set to speak, other deputies would leave the Chamber of Deputies.
  • In Estonia and Latvia, "Russian-speaking" parties (ForHRUL and Harmony Centre in Latvia, formerly Constitution party in Estonia) are excluded from participation in ruling coalitions on state level.

See also

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