Historical Dictionary



French anti-colonialism during the Indochina conflict was never as militant as it was during the Algerian War. French opposition to the colonization of foreign lands found its first advocates in the wake of the European expansion from the 15th century. In France, philosophers such as Voltaire were among the first to criticize publicly the consequences of European domination for the indigenous peoples in the non-Western world, with Voltaire’s Candide (1759) serving as a model of the genre. Many French spoke out against African slavery, such as Denis Diderot. Economists such as Jean-Baptiste Say opposed colonialism on the liberal grounds advocated by Adam Smith and others. Colonies were monopolies and thus serious obstacles to the development of capitalism, free markets, and their needed exchanges. In the late 20th century, Jacques Marseille went so far as to say that colonies were in fact an economic drain on the development of French capitalism rather than one of its highest forms as Marxists would have it.

In Republican France, at least at the outset, anti-colonialism was found on the left and right. Pierre Loti, the famous writer and journalist for the Figaro, wrote damning accounts of the violence the French conquest of Vietnam engendered in the 1880s. And of course Republicans of all political colors contested “Jules Ferry’s war” in Tonkin (and Madagascar), not least of all Georges Clémenceau. However, by World War I, the majority of the ruling class had come to accept colonialism as a necessary part of the Republic, believers in France’s special mission civilisatrice, the Darwinist and racialist principles underlying it, or convinced that French national identity, international grandeur, and economic expansion depended upon maintaining the second largest empire after the British. Even Republicans critical of colonial absuses during the first half of the 20th century, such as those in the Ligue des Droits de l’homme, the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière, or the Free Masons tended to be colonial reformers rather than decolonizers, as Daniel Hémery and Jacques Dalloz have shown.

A potent force of anti-colonialism emerged in the wake of the October Revolution in 1917 and the birth of the Soviet Union. Leninism, in particular, provided a powerful theoretical explanation for colonial exploitation. Imperialism, Lenin explained, was the highest stage of capitalism. By linking the plight of the colonial oppressed in Asia and Africa to the wider struggle of the workers in the “North” against capitalist exploitation, Lenin offered a theoretical explanation of colonial domination and way out of it. Ho Chi Minh reminded delegates at the historic congress of Tours in 1920 that French socialists had to take into account the plight of the oppressed classes toiling away in Europe as much as the colonized living under colonial rule in the non-Western world. The French Communist Party (FCP) became one of the rare voices to speak out and agitate against colonial abuses and at least theoretically support decolonization.

However, French communists were not entirely alone in their denunication of the colonial project in Indochina. Liberal intellectuals associated with the journal Esprit increasingly took to task the Third Republic’s colonial policy. The founder of this progressive, Christian review, Emmanuel Mounier, was on the cutting edge of social Catholicism and anti-colonialism. In 1934, he helped launch the Manifeste d’intellectuels catholiques pour la justice et la paix, in which the authors condemned Western colonialism and the idea of a hierarchy of “races” justifying “white” domination. He openly published Andrée Villois’s detailed report of colonial abuses in French Indochina and her damning critique of the use of torture against Vietnamese who had organized revolts in northern and central Vietnam in 1930 and 1931. After the carnage of World War II, these early, limited critiques of colonialism transformed into wider calls in the pages of Esprit for the French Republic to let go of its Empire or at least reform it in ways recognizing the historical reality of Vietnamese nationalism. The debates were lively and often trenchant on Indochina and Algeria.

However, such anti-colonial support had its limits. For example, the FCP cooled its support of the Indochina Communist Party when it was necessary to protect its interests in French politics and follow the Soviet line. This was true in the 1930s as Europe moved towards war. It was also true during the Indochina War, most notably at the outset when the FCP leadership balked at supporting Vietnamese communists for fear of jeapordizing their political standing in postwar French elections. That only changed when they entered the opposition and Stalin threw his weight behind Ho Chi Minh in early 1950. From that point, the FCP became the most important militant anti-colonialist voice in France during the Indochina War.

Nonetheless, compared to the Algerian conflict or even the French opposition to the American war in Vietnam, French anti-colonialism remained a relatively minor phenomenon during the Indochina conflict. One searches in vain in French for the equivalent of a George Orwell’s Burmese Days. André Malraux’s La condition humaine and his presence and vocal support of Vietnamese nationalism in 1920s Indochina certainly comes close. Yet his extraordinary silence on the Indochina War, Vietnamese nationalism, and decolonization as Charles de Gaulle’s minister of Information (and later as his minister of Culture) points up the compromises of French anti-colonialism, this time on the right, as France struggled to re-establish its own national identity after German occupation.

The most eloquent and powerful articulations of French anti-colonialism during the Indochina War came from rather unexpected of quarters, from Jean-Marie Domenach at Esprit and from an erudite “orientalist” raised in Indochina and who directed the entire French Colonial Academy after World War II, Paul Mus. In 1949, Mus lost this job training colonial administrators for the Empire, when he published a series of articles in the left-wing Christian paper, Témoignage Chrétien, ostensibly aimed at condemning torture but which essentially amounted to a call for the Republic to recognize the reality of Vietnamese nationalism, end the war, and decolonize Indochina as much as the French colonial mind. Mus went on to teach in the United States, where his work had a decisive impact on the anti-colonial positions adopted by the likes of Frances Fitzgerald. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fire in the Lake, a stinging indictment of the American role in Vietnam and a ringing endorsment of the Viet Minh’s nationalist cause. She dedicated the book to Mus.

The Vietnam War also contributed to the remobilization of anti-colonialism in the FCP. Two communist intellectuals and journalists for L’Humanité in Indochina were particularly important, Charles Fourniau and Alain Ruscio. Both were committed supporters of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s independence cause, its struggle against the Americans, and its ideological orientation. Fourniau created and served as the general secretary of the Association d’amitié franco-vietnamienne. He published studies of early Vietnamese anti-colonialism and nationalism, whereas Ruscio focused on the Indochina War. Like Pierre Schoendoerffer on the right, Ruscio has been deeply involved on the left in battles over the memory of the Indochina war in particular and that of French colonialism more generally. Instead of heroizing the soldiers, Ruscio has celebrated such Left-wing militants as Henri Martin and Ho Chi Minh. He also penned the history of the FCP and the Indochina War. See also BOUDAREL AFFAIR; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; JEAN CHESNEAUX; MYTH OF WAR.