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Le dictionnaire

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INTELLECTUALS, FRENCH

If the Algerian War mobilized scores of French intellectuals, ranging from Jean Paul Sartre to Raymond Aron, what is most striking about the Indochina War is the relative silence of the French intellectual class during and about France’s first war of decolonization. There were exceptions to be sure. For example, intellectuals associated with the reviews Esprit and Témoignage Chrétien published penetrating articles on colonialism and nationalism in Indochina. Indeed, Esprit was one of the rare reviews to have published articles condemning the French use of torture in Vietnam in the early 1930s. Under Jean-Marie Domenach’s guidance, this review continued to speak out against the war in Indochina after World War II. Incisive essays appeared on the dangers of French colonial policy and the need to take colonial nationalism seriously in the global South.

In 1949, the French scholar and director of the Colonial Academy, Paul Mus, dropped a bomb-shell when he published a series of articles condemning the French army’s use of torture, using this as a way of criticizing the failure of the French to recognize the historical reality of Vietnamese nationalism and humanity. While Mus’s essays irked the Right and Far Right, the question of torture never provoked intellectuals into a full-blown debate on the colonial question or the righteousness of the war, much less public demonstrations against the conflict. This is in contrast to the situation during the Algerian War, when the question of torture in particular coalesced French intellectuals led by Vidal Naquet into a driving force. Part of this was due to the fact that Indochina was far away and the use of a professional, colonial army there meant that French society itself was much less affected by the violence than during the Algerian one, when national service was in effect.

Intellectuals in the French Communist Party (FPC) were certainly among the first to speak out against colonialism, and long before World War II. They organized demonstrations against the Indochina War – strikes among dockers loading munitions for Indochina and demands for the release of Henri Martin, jailed for his opposition to the war. In so doing so, communist activists helped bring the Indochina conflict to the attention of the French public by the early 1950s. But at the outset of the war, even communists could go strangely silent in light of the FCP’s desire to maintain its favorable position in the government coalition. During the Indochina War, with a few notable exceptions, French novelists, artists, musicians, poets, and screenwriters were relatively uninterested in the conflict. That the head of the colonial academy itself became arguably the most vocal and famous critic of the war says something about the wider intellectual uninterest in the Indochina War. See also BORIS VIAN; CHRISTIANS AND FRENCH OPPOSITION TO THE WAR; CINEMA; NOVELS; PIERRE SCHOENDOERFFER; PUBLIC OPINION.