Cordon sanitaire

A loosely enforced cordon sanitaire during a cholera epidemic in Romania, 1911

A cordon sanitaire (French pronunciation: ​[kɔʁdɔ̃ sanitɛʁ], French for "sanitary cordon") is the restriction of movement of people into or out of a defined geographic area, such as a community, region, or country.[1] The term originally denoted a barrier used to stop the spread of infectious diseases. The term is also often used metaphorically, in English, to refer to attempts to prevent the spread of an ideology deemed unwanted or dangerous,[2] such as the containment policy adopted by George F. Kennan against the Soviet Union.


The term cordon sanitaire dates to 1821, when the Duke de Richelieu deployed French troops to the border between France and Spain, allegedly to prevent yellow fever from spreading into France.[3][4]


A cordon sanitaire is generally created around an area experiencing an epidemic or an outbreak of infectious disease, or along the border between two nations. Once the cordon is established, people from the affected area are no longer allowed to leave or enter it. In the most extreme form, the cordon is not lifted until the infection is extinguished.[5] Traditionally, the line around a cordon sanitaire was quite physical; a fence or wall was built, armed troops patrolled, and inside, inhabitants were left to battle the affliction without help. In some cases, a "reverse cordon sanitaire" (also known as protective sequestration) may be imposed on healthy communities that are attempting to keep an infection from being introduced. Public health specialists have included cordon sanitaire along with quarantine and medical isolation as "nonpharmaceutical interventions" designed to prevent the transmission of microbial pathogens through social distancing.[6]

The cordon sanitaire is rarely used now because of our improved understanding of disease transmission, treatment and prevention. It remains a useful intervention under conditions in which: 1) the infection is highly virulent (contagious and likely to cause illness); 2) the case fatality rate is very high; 3) treatment is nonexistent or difficult; and 4) there is no vaccine, or other means of immunizing large numbers of people (such as needles or syringes) are lacking.[7] During the COVID-19 pandemic cordons sanitaires were imposed on geographic regions around the world in an attempt to contain the infection.[8]

16th centuryEdit

  • In 1523, during a plague outbreak in Birgu, the town was cordoned off by guards to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of Malta.[9]

17th centuryEdit

  • In May 1666, the English village of Eyam famously imposed a cordon sanitaire on itself after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the community. During the next 14 months almost eighty percent of the inhabitants died.[10] A perimeter of stones was laid out surrounding the village and no one passed the boundary in either direction until November 1667, when the pestilence had run its course. Neighbouring communities provided food for Eyam, leaving supplies in designated locations along the boundary cordon and receiving payment in coins "disinfected" by running water or vinegar.[11]

18th centuryEdit

  • During the Great Northern War plague outbreak of 1708–1712, cordons sanitaires were established around affected towns like Stralsund and Königsberg; one was also established around the whole Duchy of Prussia and another one between Scania and the Danish isles along the Sound, with Saltholm as the central quarantine station.[12]
  • In 1770 the Empress Maria Theresa set up a cordon sanitaire between Austria and the Ottoman Empire to prevent people and goods infected with plague from crossing the border. Cotton and wool were held in storehouses for weeks, with peasants paid to sleep on the bales and monitored to see if they showed signs of disease. Travelers were quarantined for 21 days under ordinary circumstances and up to 48 days when there was confirmation of plague being active in Ottoman territory. The cordon was maintained until 1871, and there were no major outbreaks of plague in Austrian territory after the cordon sanitaire was established, whereas the Ottoman Empire continued to suffer frequent epidemics of plague until the mid-nineteenth century.[11]
  • During the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic, roads and bridges leading to the city were blocked off by soldiers from the local militia to prevent the illness from spreading. This was before the transmission mechanics of yellow fever were well understood.[13][14]

19th centuryEdit

  • During the 1813–14 Malta plague epidemic, the main urban settlements of Malta (Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities) and rural settlements with a high mortality rate (Birkirkara, Qormi, Żebbuġ and later Xagħra) were cordoned off by the military to prevent people from entering or leaving.[15]
  • The first actual use of the term cordon sanitaire was in 1821, when the Duke de Richelieu deployed 30,000 French troops to the border between France and Spain in the Pyrenees Mountains, allegedly in order to prevent yellow fever from spreading from Barcelona into France [3] but in fact mainly to prevent the spread of liberal ideas from constitutional Spain.[4]
  • The 1821 yellow fever epidemic ravaged Barcelona and a cordon sanitaire was set up around the entire city of 150,000 people. Between 18,000 and 20,000 died in four months.[11]
  • During the 1830 cholera outbreak in Russia, Moscow was surrounded by a military cordon, most roads leading to the city were dug up to hinder travel, and all but four entrances to the city were sealed.[11]
  • During the 1856 yellow fever epidemic a cordon sanitaire was implemented in several cities in the state of Georgia with moderate success.[16]
  • In 1869, Adrien Proust (father of novelist Marcel Proust) proposed the use of an international cordon sanitaire to control the spread of cholera, which had emerged from India and was threatening Europe and Africa. Proust proposed that all ships bound for Europe from India and Southeast Asia be quarantined at Suez, however his ideas were not generally embraced.[17][18]
  • In 1882, in response to a virulent outbreak of yellow fever in Brownsville, Texas, and in northern Mexico, a cordon sanitaire was established 180 miles north of the city, terminating at the Rio Grande to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the east. People traveling north had to remain quarantined at the cordon for 10 days before they were certified disease-free and could proceed.[11]
  • In 1888, during a yellow fever epidemic, the city of Jacksonville, Florida, was surrounded by an armed cordon sanitaire by order of Governor Edward A. Perry.[19]
  • In 1899 an outbreak of the plague in Honolulu was managed by a cordon sanitaire around the Chinatown district. In an attempt to control the infection, a barbed wire perimeter was created and people's belongings and homes were burned.[20]

20th centuryEdit

21st centuryEdit

  • During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Canada, "community quarantine" was used to successfully reduce transmission of the disease.[30]
  • During the 2003 SARS outbreak in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, large-scale quarantine was imposed on travelers arriving from other SARS areas, work and school contacts of suspected cases, and, in a few instances, entire apartment complexes where high attack rates of SARS were occurring.[31] In China, entire villages in rural areas were quarantined and no travel was allowed in or out of the villages. One village in Hebei Province was quarantined from April 12, 2003 until May 13. Tens of thousands of individuals fled from areas when they learned of an impending cordon sanitaire, thereby possibly spreading the epidemic.[32]
  • In August 2014 a cordon sanitaire was established around some of the most affected areas of the 2014 West Africa Ebola virus outbreak.[33][34] On 19 August 2014, the Liberian government quarantined the entirety of the district of West Point of the capital, Monrovia, and issued a statewide curfew.[35][36] The cordon sanitaire of the West Point area was lifted on 30 August. The information minister, Lewis Brown, said that this step was taken to ease efforts to screen, test, and treat residents.[37]
  • In January 2020, a cordon sanitaire was drawn around the Chinese city of Wuhan, known as the Wuhan lockdown, due to what became the COVID-19 pandemic.[38] As the outbreak expanded, travel restrictions impacted over half of the Chinese population, creating what may be the largest cordon sanitaire in history.[39] Other countries enacted similar restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the 2020 Malaysia movement control order[40] and Italy.[41]


The seminal use of "cordon sanitaire" as a metaphor for ideological containment referred to "the system of alliances instituted by France in post-World War I Europe that stretched from Finland to the Balkans" and which "completely ringed Germany and sealed off Russia from Western Europe, thereby isolating the two politically 'diseased' nations of Europe."[42]

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is credited with coining the usage, when in March 1919 he urged the newly independent border states (also called limitrophe states) that had seceded from the Russian Empire and its successor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics 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.[43]

National politicsEdit

Beginning in the late 1980s, the term was introduced into the discourse on parliamentary politics by Belgian commentators. At that time, the far-right Flemish nationalist Vlaams Blok party began to make significant electoral gains. Because the Vlaams Blok was considered a racist group by many, 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 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.

With the electoral success of nationalist and 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:

  • In Italy, the Italian Communist Party and Italian Social Movement were excluded from Christian democrats-led coalition governments during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War along with the Tangentopoli scandal and Mani pulite investigation resulted in a dramatic political realignment.
  • 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. In the years following 1990, the other German political parties have consistently refused to consider forming a coalition with the PDS/Left Party on a federal level (which was possible in 2005 and 2013), while on state levels, so-called red-red coalitions with the SPD were formed (or red-red-green). The term cordon sanitaire, though, is quite uncommon in Germany for coalition considerations. A strict political non-cooperation (in which The Left would participate, should the instance ever arise) is only exercised against right-wing parties, such as the Republicans, and even the Republicans have exercised a cordon against the neo-Nazi National Democrats. Since 2013, the established major parties have refused to form state-level coalitions with the new right-wing populist party AfD.
  • In the Netherlands, a parliamentary cordon sanitaire was put around the Centre Party (Centrumpartij, CP) and later on the Centre Democrats (Centrumdemocraten, CD), ostracising their leader Hans Janmaat. During the 2010 Cabinet formation, Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV) charged other parties of plotting a cordon sanitaire; however, there never was any agreement between the other parties on ignoring the PVV. Indeed, the PVV was floated several times as a potential coalition member by several informateurs throughout the government formation process, and the final minority coalition under Mark Rutte between Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Christian Democratic Appeal was officially "condoned" by the PVV. The coalition collapsed after PVV withdrew its support in 2012. Since then, all major parties refuse to cooperate with PVV.
  • 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 of the political spectrum to be acceptable to any of the European Parliament party groups[citation needed].
  • In France, the policy of non-cooperation with Front National, together with the majoritarian two-round electoral system, leads to the permanent underrepresentation of the FN in the National Assembly. For instance, the FN won no seats out of 577 in the 2002 elections, despite receiving 11.3% of votes in the first round, as no FN candidates won a first-round majority and few even qualified (either by winning at least 12.5% of the local vote with 25% turnout or by being one of the top two finishers with less) to go on to the second round. In the 2002 presidential election, after the Front National candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly defeated Lionel Jospin in the first round, the traditionally ideologically-opposed Socialist Party encouraged its voters to vote for Jacques Chirac in the second round, preferring anyone to Le Pen. In 2017, his daughter and party successor Marine Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election; both the Socialist Party and Republicans encouraged votes for her opponent Emmanuel Macron.
  • In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party is effectively excluded from any possible coalition because of a strong anti-Communist presence 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 (LKS and Harmony in Latvia, and the Constitution Party and Centre Party in Estonia) had been excluded from participation in ruling coalitions at a national level until leadership change. Differing interpretations of the Soviet period from 1940–1990 and attitudes towards the current Russian government and United Russia are often cited as reasons to conclude coalition talks with other parties, even if said parties are perceived to be on the radical right. The cordon is not absolute; the Centre Party has briefly participated in two coalition governments in 1995 and 2002–2003. In 2016 Jüri Ratas of Centre became Prime Minister of Estonia, effectively ending any cordon around the party.
  • In Spain, groups such as the People's Party, have been sometimes excluded from any government coalition in Catalonia.[44]
  • In Sweden, the political parties in the Riksdag have adopted a policy of non-cooperation with the Sweden Democrats. However, there have been exceptions where local politicians have supported resolutions from SD.
  • In Canada, resistance to the formation of coalition governments among left-of-center parties has often been attributed to an unwillingness to be seen as collaborating with the Bloc Québécois, which advocates for the independence of Quebec.
  • In the United Kingdom, the far-right British National Party is completely ostracised by the political mainstream. Prominent politicians, including former Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron, have been known to urge electors to vote for candidates from any party except the BNP.[45] The eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party has categorically refused even limited cooperation with the BNP.[46] Although the party has never held more than 60 of the some 22,000 elected positions in local government, it is generally agreed by all parties that the BNP should be excluded from any coalition agreement on those councils where no single party has a majority. When two BNP candidates were elected to the European Parliament at the 2009 election, the UK Government announced that it would provide them both with only the bare minimum level of support, denying them the ready access to officials and information that the other 70 British MEPs received.[47]
  • In Slovenia liberal, centre-left and left-wing parties led by LMŠ leader and later Prime Minister Marjan Šarec declared de facto cordon sanitaire and excluded Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) from coalition negotiations following the 2018 parliamentary election, due to its xenophobic and divisive rhetoric and policy, which was based primarily on the opposition to illegal migrations and the discreditation of political opponents. Same parties also claimed that SDS was illegally financed by foreign donations via its media (mostly capital from Hungarian companies close to Viktor Orban, with whom SDS closely cooperates) and by loans from foreign national Dijana Đuđić, who personally financed the party with almost half million €. SDS won the election but all parties from centre to left wing rejected its invitation to start negotiations.[48]
  • All of the political groups declared cordon sanitaire on far-right Identity and Democracy group in the Ninth European Parliament.[49][50]


  • In Norway, all the parliamentary parties had consistently refused to formally join into a governing coalition at state level with the right-wing Progress Party until 2013 when the Conservative Party did so. In some municipalities however, the Progress Party cooperates with many parties, including the center-left Labour Party.[51]

Popular cultureEdit

See alsoEdit


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  51. ^ "– Nulltoleranse mot Frp-samarbeid", Arbeiderpartiet Archived 2012-07-01 at