Historical Dictionary



On the eve of World War II, the European population of Indochina numbered around 35–40,000 civilians, consisting mainly of French citizens but also of a smattering of Europeans, French-naturalized Vietnamese, Indians, and métis. The majority of the European population was concentrated in urban centres, mainly in Hanoi and Saigon. About 40 percent of the European population worked in the colonial administration, while the others took to commerce, banking and, to a lesser extent, ran sugar and rubber plantations. As a colony, Cochinchina’s French citizens could elect a deputy to the French Assembly and had their own Cochinchinese Assembly. Some 600 European missionaries also lived and worked in Indochina, although not all of them were French citizens nor were they posted to the big cities. The European community ran its own associations, sporting clubs, and chambers of commerce.

While some Europeans mingled with the native Vietnamese, such as Ernest Babut and the Paul Mus family, most tended to live and work in separate worlds. Over time, the Europeans born and raised in Indochina came to think of themselves in Indochinese terms, increasingly using the term Français d’Indochine or even “Indochinois” in a semantic move to distinguish themselves from metropolitan French (not unlike the Europeans who considered themselves to be “Algerians” or “Americans”). William Bazé, for example, was a very active supporter of such an identity and of settler interests, serving as honorary president of the Mutuelle des Français d’Indochine. His Saigon-based newspaper, Le Populaire, was one of the most important settler papers of the time.

For most of World War II the political condominium between Vichy France and the Japanese spared the European population in Indochina from the tragic fate of other European communities in Southeast Asia, such as the Dutch in Indonesia and the British in Burma and Malaya. This changed dramatically during the four and half months following the Japanese overthrow of the French in Indochina in the coup de force of 9 March 1945. During this period, the Japanese incarcerated an estimated 756 French individuals (242 in Hanoi, 82 in Hue, 150 in Saigon, 150 in Haiphong and 59 in Phnom Penh). According to the French archives, the Japanese killed 400 French civilians and 1,800 French military personnel. The large majority of French working the Indochinese administration were replaced by Vietnamese, Lao, or Khmers. The Japanese coup d’état also had the effect of concentrating even more of the European population in the cities and towns by forcing (through incarceration) or frightening French settlers in the countryside to move. By their very presence as occupiers of Indochina, the Japanese humiliated the European population and this was not lost upon the Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodians.

The end of World War II did not re-establish the prewar daily life of the Français d’Indochine. Most settlers keen on protecting their earlier colonial status and interests viewed with fear the emergence of a new Vietnamese nation-state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Numbering some 5,000 in Hanoi in late 1945, few supported Vietnamese nationalist aspirations or French decolonization of Indochina. The settlers overwhelming turned to and often joined French forces sent to re-establish French colonial rule. Tensions between the Vietnamese and the French community in Saigon turned ugly and lethal in early September 1945, when violent altercations occurred in the streets. When the French moved to retake Saigon and its suburbs by force on 23 September 1945, many (not all) Europeans exacted vengeance on the Vietnamese during the reoccupation. On 23–24 September, Vietnamese groups committed a massacre in the Hérault quarter of Saigon, taking hundreds of European hostages and killing many of them in terrible circumstances, especially Franco-Vietnamese métis considered to be traitors to the new Vietnamese nation. Similar violence occurred between Vietnamese and Europeans living in Hanoi following the outbreak of full-scale war in Hanoi on 19 December 1946.

While the French army retook the main colonial cities during the Indochina War, things would never be the same. Many European settlers left Indochina in 1945 and 1946. Others, like William Bazé, stayed on, putting their hopes in the Bao Dai Solution. When the Geneva Accords formalized the decolonization of Indochina and divided Vietnam provisionally into a two states, a communist one in the north and a non-communist one in the south, the overwhelming majority of the Europeans still remaining in the north either left Indochina for good or migrated to southern Vietnam where a handful remained until the victory of the DRV in 1975 forced them to pack their bags and leave again. The French estimated that 6,500 French civilians lived and worked in Hanoi before the Geneva Accords were signed in July 1954. Of that number, only 114 remained in mid-November. See also COLLABORATION; HÉRAULT MASSACRE.