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CHESNEAUX, JEAN (1922–2007)

French specialist of 20th-century Chinese and Vietnamese history and active opponent of the French war in Indochina. Born into a liberal Catholic family, Chesneaux completed his secondary studies at the Lycées Montaigne and Louis-le-Grand before obtaining his undergraduate degree at the Sorbonne in history in 1941. He joined the resistance movement during World War II and was arrested and incarcerated by the Gestapo in 1943. Upon his liberation in 1944, Chesneaux resumed his studies and his political activism. As the secretary of the Protestant Entr’aide universitaire international, Chesneaux went on a fact-finding mission to 12 Asian countries, including Indochina, between November 1946 and August 1948. Following a brief visit to areas controlled by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the south, Chesneaux was arrested for “treason” by the French authorities. As he later put it, this was his baptism of fire in anti-colonial politics. Upon his liberation from the Prison centrale de Saigon and expulsion from Vietnam, he returned to France, joined the French Communist Party (FCP) in 1948, and threw himself into the study of modern Chinese history, submitting a thesis (later a book) on the Chinese worker’s movement in the 1920s. He was an active opponent of the French war in Indochina and joined like-minded scholars such as Paul Mus and Paul Lévy to speak out against the war at a conference organized by Christian activists in Issy-les-Moulineaux in February 1950. In September 1950, he published an enthusiastic account of the DRV in Action, coinciding with the publication of Léo Figuères’ Je reviens du Vietnam libre for the FCP. In 1955, Chesneaux published his famous Contribution à l’histoire de la nation vietnamienne, adding to the pioneering work on modern Vietnam done by Paul Mus, Philippe Devillers, Ellen Hammer, and Jean Lacouture. Although Chesneaux opposed the American war in Vietnam and was the delegate president of the pro-Hanoi Association d’amitié franco-vietnamienne, he left the FCP in 1969. In that same year, he played a pivotal role in the creation of the University of Paris VII (Jussieu), where he helped develop a program in non-Western history and recruited young French historians who would pioneer Vietnamese studies and Indochinese colonial history in France, such as Pierre Brocheux, Daniel Hémery, and Georges Boudarel. See also BOUDAREL AFFAIR; CULTURE; HISTORY; INTELLECTUALS.