French Indochina

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French Indochina

Indochina is a French colony and four protectorates in Southeast Asia established between l860 and 1904, and covering the present-day territories of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. The five colonial components of Indochina became independent in 1954.


French imperialism in Southeast Asia began almost accidentally in 1858, when a French fleet bombarded the Vietnamese port of Tourane (present-day Danang) to avenge the execution of Catholic missionaries by the Vietnamese regime. Hoping to gain commercial advantages and military renown, French troops occupied the southern city of Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City) in 1860 and by 1867 France had expanded its colony—which it named Cochinchine (Cochin China)—over six adjoining provinces. The Vietnamese emperor in Hue, who had been taken completely by surprise, acceded reluctantly to these developments, signing a treaty with France in 1862.

In 1863, in order to protect the western frontiers of Cochin China, the French imposed a protectorate on the kingdom of Cambodia. They did so with the consent of the Cambodian monarch, Norodom (r. l863–1904), who feared that continuing pressure on his kingdom from Siam would jeopardize his freedom of maneuver. The French were drawn to Cambodia by illusory notions of commercial rewards that might accrue via the unmapped Mekong River. Because King Norodom acquiesced willingly to French protection and accepted what the French called their "civilizing mission" (mission civilisatrice), Cambodia soon became one of France's favorite possessions.

Between 1873 and 1885, the French expanded their empire by imposing separate protectorates over Annam (central Vietnam)—a region that included the imperial capital of Hue—and the northern provinces of Tonkin, where the important cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were located. France broke the Vietnamese empire, which had been unified by the Nguyen Emperor Gia Long (r. 1802–1820), into three pieces. Intentionally or not, they destroyed the old, Confucian-based administrative order, and created opportunities for the Vietnamese elite to imagine and devise new ways of governing their country. "Vietnam," in any case, had disappeared and as late as the 1940s the French forbade local people to use the word.

In 1904 three principalities east of the Mekong and north of Cambodia that the French named Laos came under French control, following over twenty years of French pressure and diplomatic maneuvering. The Lao princes were happy to exchange the patronage of the Siamese ruler in Bangkok for open-ended, relatively genteel French protection.

In 1907 France persuaded Siam to relinquish control over two provinces in western Cambodia annexed by Siam in the 1790s. Following the transfer of these provinces, one of which contained the ruins of Cambodia's medieval capital of Angkor, French Indochina assumed the physical dimensions that it retained (save for a brief hiatus in World War II) until the end of the colonial era.


French policies and administrative styles differed over time and from place to place, responding in part to differences among the components of their empire. Cochin China was a colony and was subject to French law. Its French citizens elected a member to the National Assembly in Paris. The regime encouraged the Vietnamese elite to take up French citizenship. France used hundreds of local people in their administration, with a French governor as the supreme authority. The press was relatively free and people were better educated than elsewhere in Indochina. In the "protectorates," where local rulers supposedly retained authority, French citizenship was harder to obtain, educational institutions developed more slowly, and French controls over the press and political activity were more repressive.

The component parts of Indochina also differed demographically: the Red River Delta in Tonkin, bordering China, was one of the most densely populated regions in the world, whereas Annam, Cambodia, and Laos housed relatively few people. The parts differed culturally as well, as the name Indochina suggests. The national languages of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were mutually unintelligible. The Lao and Cambodians were Theravada Buddhists with cultures influenced indirectly by India, whereas the Vietnamese were nominally Mahayana Buddhists, and had been deeply influenced by Chinese Confucian culture and administration for over two thousand years. Eating habits, writing systems, clothing styles, and domestic architecture differed between Laos and Cambodia on the one hand and Vietnam on the other. Finally, largely because of nineteenth-century events, the Khmer and the Lao were fearful of Vietnamese expansion, whereas the Vietnamese, in general, looked down on their "barbarian" neighbors to the west.

Under the French Governor General Paul Doumer (1897–1902), administrative distinctions in the region blurred as the overarching entity of "Indochina" was imposed onto its component parts. Doumer's reforms brought Indochina's accounts into balance, via the efficient collection of taxes. Government monopolies on the sale of opium, salt, and alcohol provided almost half of the total revenues. Local people (including the Lao, after 1904) were also heavily taxed. They now came under the jurisdiction of a French Governor General, resident in Hanoi. The French maintained the fiction that they governed on behalf of local rulers (except in Cochin China), but gave those rulers no authority.


To rule over millions of people, the French needed local help. In Vietnam they could count on experienced administrators to collect taxes and to maintain law and order. In Laos and Cambodia, a career civil service was undeveloped but taxes were collected with the help of local elites.

In economic terms, Cochin China was the most prosperous part of Indochina. The benefits of French law, combined with profitable rice and rubber plantations (the latter controlled by French companies) and the entrepreneurial energy of Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese merchants, made Cochin China the liveliest, most prosperous, and most Francophile component of Indochina. Hundreds of wealthy Cochin Chinese were educated in France, and immigrants from southern China poured into the colony, where most of them engaged in commerce and petty manufacturing. Saigon and its Chinese suburb of Cholon were linked by trading networks to the outside world and functioned as powerful engines of free market capitalism.

By the 1920s, rich coal deposits in Tonkin and rubber plantations in Cambodia also produced revenue for French investors and spawned the beginnings of a proletariat, later drawn toward the Indo-China Communist Party (or ICP; founded in 1930). Investments in Indochinese public works such as the Hanoi to Saigon railroad, which carried few passengers and very little freight, reaped large profits for shareholders in France, who constituted the Indochina lobby. At the same time, France was reluctant to encourage any manufacturing in Indochina that would compete with imported French goods. Local merchants grew rich in the import-export business and by buying up agricultural harvests, while local rice growers in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta (after the region had been drained by French engineers) became more prosperous as they expanded their subsistence-oriented holdings to produce crops for export. Marketing was assisted by a new network of roads, market towns, and railways in Vietnam and Cambodia. In the l920s most of Indochina enjoyed an economic boom, spurred by international demands for rubber, rice, and other agricultural products.


The French expected to stay indefinitely in Indochina. In what the French scholar Paul Mus has called the "monologue of colonialism," they made no sustained effort to prepare local people for self-sufficiency, higher education, free trade, relations with other countries, political participation, or independence. Unlike the British in India, the French had no exit strategy. The process of domination involved infantilizing their colonial protégés. Quarantined in theory (and by the French police) from politics and drastic change, local people were forbidden to grow up, meaning that the civilizing mission could never be complete. In fact, widespread modernization took place throughout Vietnam, especially among the expanding reading public, after the French introduced a Roman alphabet (quoc ngu) for writing Vietnamese, replacing the Chinese ideograms that had been in use for two millennia. Thousands of Vietnamese readers happily absorbed new nonpolitical publications (including women's magazines, self-help manuals, and technical handbooks) as well as new literary forms, such as daily newspapers and the novel. In Laos and Cambodia, where literacy was less widespread and less prestigious, the psychological effects of what Benedict Anderson has called print capitalism, and has linked to nationalism, were much slower. At the same time, roads and railroads, market towns, automobiles, movies and radio, telecommunications, the expansion of education, and the growth of cities—developments in which the French participated but could not control—took place alongside the ongoing political repression that kept local people in check and has preoccupied so many writers.

French administrators—who enjoyed lower status at home than their British counterparts in India, and were more numerous—tried to preserve, as if in amber, supposedly "traditional" culture, class divisions, and patterns of land ownership. It was pleasing and inexpensive for them to do so. Traditional rulers had similarly sought to control and exploit local people, who had never had a voice in administration. In Cambodia, the French restored the medieval temple complex of Angkor and in effect presented the Khmer with the gift of a history that they had forgotten. The Vietnamese were less happy at being placed in a Confucian time warp, especially after Chinese elements of their culture and traditional government had been so severely undermined. The French made sure, in the meantime, that local people paid the costs of governing Indochina. Until the closing year of World War II, with rare exceptions, the system worked.


Resistance to the French in Vietnam began in the 1860s and continued sporadically until the 1930s, reemerging during World War II and reaching a climax in September 1945 when the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (l890–1969) declared Vietnam's independence. There was much less resistance to France in Cambodia and Laos. Because of the intensity of resistance in Vietnam and the eventual victory of anticolonial forces there, it is tempting to read Vietnamese history in terms of continuous and eventually triumphant resistance to foreign control. Many scholars have chosen to do so. Vietnam's victories over France and the United States, following centuries of resistance to China in precolonial times, provide a pleasing structure for Vietnamese historical writing, from the winners' point of view.

More recently, scholars have argued that multiple readings of the Indochinese past are preferable to unilinear ones. The resistance model, for example, does not clarify the histories of Laos or Cambodia, nor does it explain the thirty-year-long alliance between southern Vietnam and the United States. Scholars have also drawn attention to the complex social history of the region, where developments occurred without reference to the political interplay between the French and the Vietnamese. Print capitalism has been mentioned. Scholars have also singled out the sizeable contributions made by such historical "losers" as nonrevolutionary women, Catholics, Francophiles, members of religious sects, ethnic minorities, and the southern Vietnamese allied with the United States.

Nonetheless, in an article of this length, resistance has to occupy a prominent position. Without it, after all, the French might have stayed on much longer, or might even still be in command.

In the 1880s the "aid the king" (can vuong) movement mobilized thousands of patriots who sought fruitlessly but with great courage to restore the status quo ante. They were crushed by French military force, but their patriotism inspired many later thinkers, including Ho Chi Minh.

In the early twentieth century, the prospects for turning the clock back dimmed. Vietnamese patriots like Phan Boi Chau (1867–1940) were impressed by developments in China and Japan, while opponents of France in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Phan Chu Trinh (1871–1926), drew on European examples—including democracy and Communism—for their ideology. After 1900, few Vietnamese intellectuals sought refuge in the precolonial past.

Until the late 1940s, French repressive mechanisms in Indochina were sufficient to keep most resistance in check. When armed resistance broke out in 1930 to 1931 in northern and central Vietnam, partly in response to severe economic conditions, it was ruthlessly repressed. Hundreds of rebels were put to death. The ICP (founded by Ho Chi Minh) had been involved in the uprisings, and soon became the best organized of the clandestine groups opposed to French colonialism. As thousands of Vietnamese were arrested for political "crimes," the prisons became training schools for anti-French political cadre, especially Communists, many of whom were released under France's Popular Front government (l936–1939).

The most substantial resistance to France in Cambodia came in 1884 to 1886, when the French tried to abolish what they called "slavery" in the kingdom. Their move struck at the networks of patronage and clientship that allowed Cambodia to function in a premodern fashion. The revolt forced the French to slow down the pace of reform. Until the l940s, Cambodia was at peace. Historians looking for the roots of Cambodian nationalism have found them in the small Cambodian elite educated in the 1930s, and in the Cambodian language newspaper Nagara Vatta (Angkor Wat), which flourished between 1936 and 1942. Resistance to the French in Laos was also insignificant because the Lao population was scattered and apolitical, while the relatively benign Lao elite remained in place, supported by the French.


World War II was a turning point in Indochina. When it began in 1939, France was more firmly in control than ever. Six years later, thanks to the Japanese, all the components of Indochina declared their independence, and France had to fight its way back into the region.

France's defeat in Europe led Thailand (formerly known as Siam) to attack Cambodia and Laos so as to regain some of the territory that had been taken from it by France. In 1941 Japan reached an agreement with the French in Indochina whereby the Japanese stationed troops in the region while France retained administrative control. The arrangement suited both parties but displeased France's former European allies. Japan launched its invasion of the rest of mainland Southeast Asia from Indochinese bases in December 1941.

In the same year, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after forty years in exile, and established the Viet Minh ("Free Viet") independence movement as a united front (secretly led by the ICP). He was joined in the mountains by new recruits and by members of the ICP. Nationalists in Cambodia and Laos, drawn from the educated elite, also accelerated their anti-French activities, encouraged by Japan and by the Thai, but armed resistance to France failed to develop before 1945.

On March 9, 1945, fearing an Allied attack, the Japanese moved suddenly to sequester French military and civilian officials throughout Indochina. The French were taken by surprise. The Japanese then urged local rulers, who had been handpicked by the French, to declare independence. For the next few months Cambodia and Laos governed themselves, Vietnam was briefly reunited, and the Viet Minh descended from their strongholds to take control over much of Tonkin. In September 1945 Bao Dai abdicated in favor of Ho Chi Minh, who proclaimed Vietnam's independence in Hanoi a day after Japan surrendered to the Allies.

After the surrender, under agreements reached at Potsdam in June 1945, British troops were sent to disarm the Japanese in southern Indochina, while Chinese Nationalist troops performed the same task in the north. British support for French colonialism (opposed by the United States) meant that several hundred French troops were able to reenter Cochin China and reassert control there and in Cambodia. They were unable to do so in the north, where they were forced to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh's new national government, known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (RDVN). In November 1946 fighting broke out between French and RDVN forces, first in northern Vietnam and later throughout the country. By 1950 the Vietnamese Communists had also come to dominate the poorly organized Lao and Cambodian independence movements. After the Communist victory in China in 1949, Chinese aid helped the Viet Minh to defeat the French, and all of Indochina became independent in 1954. Vietnam, however, was divided at the seventeenth parallel, and an anticommunist regime in southern Vietnam held out against North Vietnamese military pressure with American assistance until l975, when RDVN forces occupied the south and reunited the country, which they renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.


Half a century after the collapse of the French empire in Indochina, and nearly thirty years after the end of the second Indochina War, we can assess the colonial era more objectively than would have been possible in the 1940s and 1950s, when independence movements throughout Southeast Asia, supported by large sections of global public opinion, swept out their colonial masters. The historian Nicholas Tarling has called colonialism in Southeast Asia a "fleeting, passing phase" and certainly France's brief time in Indochina has to be weighed against the thousands of years that came before and the half-century that has elapsed since France departed from the region. It is tempting to say that the colonial era in Indochina was unimportant. Nonetheless, while it is possible to imagine Vietnam modernizing itself without the intrusion of a colonial power, it is unlikely that Laos and Cambodia would have survived as independent states without French protection against their Southeast Asian neighbors.

A legacy of French town planning, official architecture, and design is still visible in Indochina, especially in the larger towns. Museums in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were established by the French and flourish today, while in Cambodia the French still play an important role in the restoration and maintenance of Angkor. The major cities, especially Hanoi and Phnom Penh, still have a French "feel" about them, and whereas Vietnam and Laos now have Marxist-Leninist regimes, the government of Cambodia retains many organizational features inherited from the colonial era. Finally, while the many shortcomings of French rule must be firmly kept in mind, it is impossible to blame or praise the French for developments that have occurred in Indochina since the 1970s, after French influence had sharply diminished throughout the region.

see also Mekong River, Exploration of the.


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