French voters united to block far right again, but ‘cordon sanitaire’ strategy is increasingly rare in Europe

Cordon sanitaire is no longer seen in most cases as a reliable mechanism to for isolating far-right parties. But in France, which has long held a tradition of using it against the old Front National, it seems to have worked again against its modern reincarnation, the RN.
Newly elected parliament members of the Socialist party, with former French President Francois Hollande at center, pose at the National Assembly, Tuesday, July 9, 2024 in Paris.
Newly elected parliament members of the Socialist party, with former French President Francois Hollande at center, pose at the National Assembly, Tuesday, July 9, 2024 in Paris.Photo | AP

Owen WorthUniversity of Limerick

In European politics, one specific strategy for dealing with a political party that appears a danger to the wider democratic system is to look to isolate it to make sure it does not advance politically. This process is known as “cordon sanitaire”. It’s a strategy that has been applied at local levels, at national levels and across borders within the European parliament.

In general, it has been applied to right-wing parties that appear to threaten the fabric of liberal democracy. In recent years, the sheer number of populist parties emerging from the right has arguably made such a process redundant.

Yet the recent French election has shown us that the overriding principle behind cordon sanitaire can still work. The Rassemblement National (National Rally or NR) topped the poll in the first round of voting but were effectively bumped to third by tactical voting in the final round.

By strategically forming unlikely voting alliances, a reactionary party can effectively be isolated from power. However, the case of the French election might just be an isolated example of a strategy that is increasingly rare in the current environment.

‘Cordon Sanitaire’

Initially, the concept of cordon sanitaire was used in international relations to understand how a specific balance of power could be applied to keep certain states down. It was especially popularised by the French in the inter-war years as a means of containing Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Politically, it was also used after the second world war as a strategy of containing communist parties within western Europe. With the Marshall Plan drawn up by the US to offer economic support to rebuild war-torn economies, the need to isolate communist parties from office was seen as paramount.

As far-right parties began to emerge again by the 1980s, it was seen apt to isolate them in a similar way in order to restrict them from gaining a potential footing within political society. As such, it was used in Belgium, against the Flemish National Party Vlaams Blok (as it was then) in the early 1990s, when parties signed a pact to exclude them from further coalitions.

Informally, it has been employed in Germany, against Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) at state levels, against the Swedish Democrats in the national parliament in Sweden and within local councils in England, during the brief success of the BNP in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2010, the Party of European Socialists (PES) in the European Parliament confirmed an agreement between all its members to distance themselves from working with far-right parties.

Limits of the strategy

Yet there were also places where cordon sanitaire was never really taken seriously once a radical right party gained prominence. Both the Freedom Party and Pym Fortuyn’s List in Austria and the Netherlands, respectively, entered government as soon as they achieved electoral success.

In both cases, their ineffective presence within governmental coalitions led to a drop in their support and ultimately provided other parties with an alternative way of dealing with them.

But practically, the sheer numbers of right-wing populist parties on the political scene means that they can no longer be contained. Indeed, it remains increasingly difficult to find a country in Europe where a radical right-wing party of some form does not exist.

Even in Ireland, which has often been thought of as the exception, the success of populist independent politicians such as Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Rae brothers, alongside an unprecedented amount of anti-immigration movements, have emerged. What we have seen instead has been the mainstreaming of not only far-right parties within political society but also of their core beliefs.

Mainstreaming of right-wing ideas

Ideas around immigration, multiculturalism and on international “conspiracies” that were considered extreme and nonsensical a couple of decades ago are now aired daily within political discourse.

Many right-of-centre parties across Europe have felt compelled to engage with such rhetoric, with powerful elements within some, including Les Républicains in France and the Conservative party in Britain, looking to actively endorse it. At the same time, the definitions of such parties are constantly altering.

While political scientists have long looked to classify parties into extreme right, far right, radical right, populist right and right wing, parties have been quick to distance themselves from such tags. This was perhaps seen prominently with Richard Tice, chairman of Reform UK this year, who threatened to sue the BBC if they repeated the far-right tag – and won an apology.

Cordon sanitaire is no longer seen in most cases as being a reliable mechanism to for isolating far-right parties. But in the case of France, which has long held a tradition of using it against the old Front National, it seems to have worked again against its modern reincarnation, the RN. This is despite the fact that the RN forged a part alliance with the aforementioned Les Républicains.

On the other hand, it may just be that electorates are getting better at using tactical voting against a particular political party which has blotted its copybook in some way. In the same week that the UK Conservatives were was electorally destroyed by tactical voting, the RN was also frozen out of power.

Owen Worth, Professor of International Politics and Director of Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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