Historical Dictionary



The colonial security and police service in charge of French Indochina until the withdrawal of the French following the Geneva Accords of July 1954. The Sûreté was first created in Indochina during World War I thanks to the efforts of Governor General Albert Sarraut and his allies, most notably Louis Marty. The Sûreté closely tracked the birth, growth, and activities of Vietnamese communists and nationalists inside and outside of French Indochina. It was on a number of occasions remarkably effective in shutting down anti-colonial activities, especially in 1930–1931 and again in 1940–1941. One ranking French intelligence officer in Indochina considered it to be “all powerful” (toute puissante) until early 1945.

The Japanese coup de force of 9 March 1945 changed all that. Not only did the Japanese bring down French Indochina in that month, but with it they put an end to the existing French colonial police services. Following the Japanese defeat a few months later, Vietnamese nationalists in the south and especially above the 16th parallel took over French Sûreté offices, files, archives, and often their techniques. When the French returned to southern Indochina in late 1945, they moved to rebuild their civil police and security services. However, the Sûreté would never regain its prewar effectiveness. Too many of its Vietnamese personnel were compromised in 1945; some of its best French officers were purged by Gaullists for their collaboration with Vichy, including Paul Arnoux; and the colonial police apparently never regained the financing it had during the interwar period.

Nevertheless, if the Indochinese colonial state were to function again, the Sûreté had to be remade as well. On 14 September 1945, the French created the Service de Sûreté de la Cochinchine, relying upon recently liberated French and Vietnamese security personnel. On 17 September 1945, an attempt to recreate the Indochinese Security Service occurred when nine bureaucrats of the colonial police created the Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté générale, which returned to its earlier address once the French retook Saigon on 23 September 1945. However, since March 1945, this service had lost some 800 Indochinese personnel. Like the Deuxième Bureau, the territorial reach of the Sûreté became more concrete and geographically complete as the French extended their military and political presence into Cambodia and then, in 1946, discreetly into areas above the 16th parallel.

Squadron Leader Georges Buis assumed the interim direction of the reconstituted Sûreté in 1945. In December 1945, André Moret, who had previously directed the political section of the French police in Shanghai, took charge of reorganizing the Sûreté’s activities in Tonkin, while a certain M. Thierry did the same in Cambodia from late September. Pierre Perrier became the new director of the federal police and security forces. He was in direct liaison with other civil and military intelligence services, including the Deuxième Bureau and the Bureau fédéral de documentation.

The French colonial security and police services operated out of the main capitals of each of the five parts of Indochina, each of which was in charge of smaller posts throughout their territories. With the creation of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Cochinchina, on 8 July 1946 there came also a separate Sûreté nationale cochinchinoise. However, in light of its limited resources and under attack from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the French Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté générale supported it and would continue to do so as the Sûreté nationale cochinchinoise eventually morphed into the national intelligence service for the Associated State of Vietnam from 1949.

A national police force in Cambodia came to life in September 1945, in the absence of the French. The French were able to ally their security forces with this nationally inspired one in the modus vivendi of March 1946. Despite some friction at the outset, collaboration became increasingly effective in light of the wider struggle against the DRV and its Indochinese-wide pretensions.Following the return of the French to all of Laos in mid-1946, an accord was struck in July according to which a national police service would be created in Laos. Until then, the French services filled in.

As for Tonkin/Bac Bo and Annam/Trung Bo north of the 16th parallel, the DRV refused to recognize, much less allow the overt extension of, the colonial police and security services in nationally controlled territory. The DRV only tolerated Moret’s work in Hanoi in order to avoid triggering a premature war. Following the outbreak of full-scale war on 19 December 1946, however, the French obviously felt no qualms about extending their federal services to all of Annam and Tonkin. Although the idea of creating an Indochinese Federation was rapidly fading by late 1947, the name “federal” continued to be used when referring to the Sûreté.

This changed with the creation of the Associated State of Vietnam under Bao Dai in 1949, when the French began decolonizing their police and security services. The French transferred control of the federal police and security services to their counterparts in northern (15 June 1950), central (18 July 1950), southern Vietnam (10 March 1950), and early 1951 for the highlands. However, it was harder to hand over more sensitive parts of the colonial security apparatus, including a secret section called the “territorial surveillance” (surveillance du territoire), military security, the highly sensitive 5th Section in charge of controlling postal and telegraph communications, and the equally secretive “Police spéciale”. As a result, on 5 April 1950, the French created the Services de Sécurité du Haut-Commissariat en Indochine, complete with its territorial subdivisions, in order to ensure some of the main tasks of the former security service and to run the “non-transferable” parts of the former colonial Sûreté. Pierre Perrier ran this new service and much of the show.

However, the Associated State of Vietnam increasingly asserted its prerogatives and cooperation was not always ensured between the French and the Vietnamese fighting the Viet Minh. In October 1953, as the French were forced to decolonize further, the Service de Sécurité du Haut-Commissariat was dissolved and integrated into the Service de Protection du Corps expéditionnaire, whose archives can be consulted in part in the Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France. See also PUBLIC SECURITY SERVICE; SERVICE DE DOCUMENTATION EXTÉRIEURE ET DE CONTRE-ESPIONNAGE; MAURICE BELLEUX; ANTOINE SAVANI; LE GIAN; TRAN HIEU.