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REMAINS, FRENCH UNION

The Geneva Accords ending the Indochina War in July 1954 contained a clause obliging the belligerants to search, locate, and exhume the remains of soldiers killed during the war. The French authorities and those of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) signed “protocol no. 24” on 1 February 1955, allowing for the location and regrouping of remains and the erection of necropolises to hold them throughout all of Vietnam, meaning the DRV above the 17th parallel and the State of Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam from October 1955) below that line. The remains of DRV personnel were to be relocated to the north while those of the State of Vietnam were to be transferred to the south.

However, because the State of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem and Bao Dai was not privy to this protocol (or the Geneva convention) and because the State of Vietnam refused to allow DRV search teams access to its territory, the DRV retaliated in July 1955 by denying the French the right to dispatch search teams to its territory. Negotiations on this delicate subject resumed on 14 December 1959, when an agreement was signed by the French and the DRV authorities allowing for the repatriation of 213 remains and the relinquishing by the French of three cemeteries in Bac Ninh provinces. The French agreed to transfer the remains held in these cemeteries to a new necropolis to be built at French expense. In all, some 30,000 bodies had to be regrouped and moved to a necropolis where they would await eventual repatriation to France. However, the agreement did not require DRV compliance and the war with the Americans took priority over everything else. Between 1954 and 1975, the French only repatriated 1,200 bodies, leaving over 25,000 remains in Vietnam.

After the unification of the country and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976, these cemeteries and others (home to missionaries and colonial figures and families) fell into disrepair, so much so that French authorities decide to repatriate the remains of the French Union soldiers killed in the Indochina War as well as Indochinese soldiers allied with the French who had never been claimed by their Vietnamese, Lao, or Cambodian families. On 10 October 1986, then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac personally went to Roissy airport to receive the first coffins. Within a year, some 25,000 remains were transferred to France. Except for those claimed by their families, most of the remains representing the French Union were inhumed at the Indochina War necropolis at Fréjus.

Between 1954 and 1956, French authorities transferred hundreds of unclaimed Lao and Cambodians killed during the war to Saigon before moving most of them them to France from the late 1980s. That said, individual families repatriated hundreds of remains in the 1960s and 1970s without government assistance. The French Ministry of Veteran Affairs reported that in all 24,632 remains were repatriated at this time, of which 17,830 were those of soldiers killed in the line of duty, 3,407 were soldiers who died for other reasons, and 3,395 were civilians who had died in Indochina. See also MEMORIAL DAY, INDOCHINA WAR; MISSING IN ACTION; COMICS AND WAR; BOUDAREL AFFAIR; REMAINS, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM; CAM LY, MASSACRE; CEMETERIES; MYTH OF WAR; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; LOVE AND WAR; LANGUAGE OF WAR; MARTYR; WAR MEMORIAL, DIEN BIEN PHU; ASSOCIATION OF MOTHERS OF SOLDIERS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS D’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS ET AMIS DE L’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES COMBATTANTS DE DIEN BIEN PHU; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS PRISONNIERS INTERNÉS D’INDOCHINE; MEMORIAL CAO BANG.