Why, while memorial work on the Algerian war is underway in France, is similar work not being done on the Indochina war?
Emmanuel Macron has just carried out a official visit to Algiers in order to implement a "memorial reconciliation" between French and Algerian societies on the war that tore them apart between 1954 and 1962.
In July 2020, already, the president had entrusted to the historian Benjamin Stora a "mission on the memory of colonization and the Algerian war". Six months later, the latter returned his report including concrete recommendations to facilitate reconciliation. In October 2021, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath national on the banks of the Seine in memory of Algerian activists killed by French police in 1961.
These steps were, of course, motivated by a need to confront the past, by the recent tensions between France and Algeria, by unresolved integration issues in France, and no doubt political concerns during the outgoing president's election campaign in 2022. It is nevertheless striking to note how Algeria occupies a much more important place than Indochina in French memory. . And this, despite the fact that the Indochina war, which pitted France against Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam between 1945 and 1954, was the most violent decolonization war of the XXᵉ century.
How to explain this relative oblivion of Vietnam at a time when France seems more ready than before to look its colonial past in the face?
The “Algerian shore” of French memory
The Algerian predominance can be explained by various factors. The first, demographic, highlights the meager weight of the population of the "French of Indochina" – 35 people in 000 – compared to the million “French from Algeria” who were fairly stable between 1945 and 1945. After the war in Algeria, the majority of them settled in France. The political weight and the memorial influence of the French from Indochina will always remain more modest compared to those of the French from Algeria who settled in France after 1962.
The second factor relates to the origin of the fighters themselves. To keep Algeria French, Paris saw no choice but to impose conscription to young French people in metropolitan France. One and a half million French soldiers were thus sent to Algeria. When the war is over, spokespersons, associations, publishing houses, former colonists too, will exchange memories, traumas, commemorations.
In Indochina, the situation was very different: the French government had called in the Expeditionary Corps, the Foreign Legion, but above all the soldiers of his Empire. The majority of the “ancients of Indo” were in fact from Indochina, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. When the war was over, they brought their memory back with them. The man who built the commemorative slab at Diên Biên Phu in 1992, to honor the soldiers who fell for France in this historic battle of 1954, was a German, a veteran of the Legion.
Third factor: if tens of thousands of Algerian harkis, who had fought as auxiliaries alongside the French, settled in France after 1962 with their families, the Vietnamese soldiers having fought the troops of Ho Chi Minh alongside the French first, then Americans until the fall of saigon in 1975, mainly rebuilt their lives in North America. The Vietnamese diaspora in France cannot be compared to the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, nor to that of Algerians in France. The political and memorial weight of this Vietnamese community in France is consequently much weaker. In 2019, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee) counted 846 Algerian immigrants residing on French territory. In the same year, the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) estimated that 1 the number of children of Algerian immigrants residing in France, or 2,1 million people over two generations.
The Vietnamese diaspora in France is the second in the world after that of the United States, which is strong with 2 members. INSEE counted 100 people residing in France in 000. born throughout the former French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam) as well as 153 direct descendants of at least one parent born in former French Indochina, or 312 in total.
Whether President Macron is recently addressed to the “grandchildren of the Algerian war” without thinking of evoking their Vietnamese counterparts is revealing in this regard.
It should also be noted that the war in Algeria never became internationalized as was the case in Indochina. This allowed French politicians and veterans to present the war in Indochina as an anti-communist struggle within the framework of a Western coalition, not as a colonial war that she certainly was. France's exit from the Indochina war thus appeared less like a colonial defeat than a simple passing of the anti-communist torch to the Americans in a distant country in Asia. Admittedly, the war in Algeria had an international component, but it was above all a colonial affair. Indochina will remain a major geopolitical issue in international relations until the 1990s.
Finally, French intellectuals critical of the Indochina War at the time can be counted on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand, the list of those who opposed the Algerian conflict is long: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, Franz Fanon and Pierre Bourdieu to name but a few. Even French cinema excludes the Vietnamese. We see the French centurions of the war in Indochina in the films of Pierre Schoendoerffer as The 317ᵉ Section ou The Drum Crab. We follow the French soldiers in the communist camps after Diên Biên Phu. But one searches in vain for a critical film dealing with the colonial backdrop of the Indochina war that would be comparable to the Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo.
And the “Vietnamese side”?
The Vietnamese could have called Paris to account at the end of the war in 1954. But it was not so easy. The american war quickly eclipsed that of Indochina in the 1960s. Then came the Third Indochina War, which opposed the Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese communists in 1979. The atrocities accumulated, crushed one on the other. Worrying about history, about memory, when the country is still at war or everything has to be rebuilt can seem difficult to undertake.
Nowadays, the communist government of Vietnam does not particularly want to remember these conflicting sides. It endlessly repeats a heroic nationalist story, where the famous victory over the French army at Dien Bien Phu is a glorious link, primordial in terms of memory. But for Hanoi, it is out of the question to claim France's repentance for the war in Indochina. The massacres committed by the French army in the late 1940s are remembered at the local level to the present day, but the current government would never let these "My French Lai" jeopardize its relations with France.
Doubtless also, Hanoi, attached to a China determined to play a predominant role in the Indo-Pacific, does not wish to question its discreet, but very important, relations with the Americans and the French. In the Middle East, no neighbor of Algeria is a power remotely comparable to China. The Algerian leaders therefore have a freer hand to mobilize memory differently vis-à-vis France.
The contrast is obvious between memorial thinking in Hanoi and Algiers, when one thinks of the will of Algerian leaders since Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president between 1999 and 2019, and his successor, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to put colonization on trial in France. In 2021, the Algerian Minister of Communication asked “the official, definitive and global recognition, by France, of its crimes […] repentance and fair compensation”. Emmanuel Macron, in his reply, aroused the anger of the ruling class in Algiers by declaring that Algeria was built "on a memory rent" and "a hatred of France". In protest, the Algerian president recalled his ambassador from Paris. No communist leader in Hanoi would ever have entered into such an exchange with the French government.
France-Vietnam: has reconciliation really already happened?
In Vietnam as in France, leaders prefer to look to the future. This was already evident at the start of the normalization of Franco-Vietnamese relations at the end of the Cold War. When President François Mitterrand carried out a official visit to Vietnam in 1993 to open a new diplomatic chapter, he laid particular emphasis on the future.
Initiating a sort of ritual that continues to this day, Mitterrand however went to the site of Diên Biên Phu to salute the heroism of the French fighters who fell in this epic battle, to "feel all that a Frenchman can experience in the face of the sacrifice of our soldiers, without forgetting the others". On this trip, Mitterrand was notably accompanied by Pierre Schoendoerffer. The latter had just released his latest film, Dien bien phu, who rightly praised the spirit of “sacrifice” of the French soldiers during this “tragic” and yet “heroic” loss that was the battle of Diên Biên Phu.
Emmanuel Macron has never been to Vietnam, but there is sent his prime minister Édouard Philippe, on an official visit in 2018. He solemnly laid a wreath in front of the French war memorial in Diên Biên Phu. He briefly evoked the Franco-Vietnamese war before turning to the future:
“Our two countries, because they are reconciled with their past, look even more forcefully to their shared future. »
His Vietnamese counterpart made a statement along the same lines. Indeed, unlike the Algerian government, Vietnamese leaders want to avoid highlighting the colonial past in order to emphasize a new “strategic partnership” in Asia. For Paris and Hanoi, reconciliation is already achieved. You have to turn the page.
However, the scars of war are still present in the Vietnamese social fabric. According to Bernard Fall, a million Vietnamese died during the Indochinese conflict (against 21 French deaths). Most were civilians. But few journalists, writers or researchers have investigated the wounds of the Indochina war experienced by the Vietnamese. And yet, of many monuments commemorate civilian casualties caused by war. Just look beyond Diên Biên Phu.
Several Vietnamese also left us their testimonies. You have to read them. Because breaking a wall of silence is one thing, but a lack of listening perpetuates oblivion.