French Indochina (Indochine française in French, សហភាពឥណ្ឌូចិន in Khmer, Đông Dương thuộc Pháp in Vietnamese, ຝຣັ່ງແຫຼັມອິນດູຈີນ in Lao, and 法屬印度支那 in Cantonese), officially known as the Indochinese Union (Union indochinoise) after 1887 and the Indochinese Federation (Fédération indochinoise) after 1947, was a grouping of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia. A grouping of the three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south) with Cambodia was formed in 1887. Laos was added in 1893 and the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan in 1898. The capital was moved from Saigon (in Cochinchina) to Hanoi (Tonkin) in 1902 and again to Da Lat (Annam) in 1939. In 1945 it was moved back to Hanoi. In 1935, French Indochina occupied 284,557 square miles (737,000 km²) with an estimated population of 21,599,582.
French–Vietnamese relations started as early as the seventeenth century with the mission of the Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes At this time, Vietnam was only just beginning to occupy the Mekong Delta, former territory of the Indianized kingdom of Champa which they had defeated in 1471. European involvement in Vietnam was confined to trade during the eighteenth century. In 1787, French Catholic priest Pierre Pigneau de Behaine petitioned the French government and organized French military volunteers to aid Nguyễn Ánh in retaking lands his family lost to the Tây Sơn. Pigneau died in Vietnam but his troops fought on until 1802 in the French assistance to Nguyễn Ánh.
France was heavily involved in Vietnam in the nineteenth century; protecting the work of the Paris Foreign Missions Society in the country was often presented as a justification. For its part, the Nguyễn dynasty increasingly saw Catholic missionaries as a political threat; courtesans, for example, an influential faction in the dynastic system, feared for their status in a society influenced by an insistence on monogamy.
In 1858, the brief period of unification under the Nguyễn dynasty ended with a successful attack on Da Nang by French Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly under the orders of Napoleon III. Diplomat Charles de Montigny’s mission having failed, Genouilly’s mission was to stop attempts to expel Catholic missionaries. His orders were to stop the persecution of missionaries and assure the unimpeded propagation of the faith.
In September 1858, fourteen French gunships, 3,000 men and 300 Filipino troops provided by the Spanish attacked the port of Tourane (present day Da Nang), causing significant damage and occupying the city. After a few months, Rigault had to leave the city due to supply issues and illnesses. Sailing south, de Genouilly then captured the poorly defended city of Saigon on February 18, 1859. On April 13, 1862, the Vietnamese government was forced to cede the three provinces of Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Định Tường to France. De Genouilly was criticized for his actions and was replaced by Admiral Page in November 1859, with instructions to obtain a treaty protecting the Catholic faith in Vietnam, but refrain from territorial gains.
French policy four years later saw a reversal, with the French continuing to accumulate territory. In 1862, France obtained concessions from Emperor Tự Đức, ceding three treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin, and all of Cochinchina, the latter being formally declared a French territory in 1864. In 1867, the provinces of Châu Đốc, Hà Tiên and Vĩnh Long were added to French-controlled territory.
In 1863, the Cambodian king Norodom had requested the establishment of a French protectorate over his country. In 1867, Siam (modern Thailand) renounced suzerainty over Cambodia and officially recognized the 1863 French protectorate on Cambodia, in exchange for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces which officially became part of Siam. These provinces would be ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Siam in 1906.
France obtained control over northern Vietnam following its victory over China in the Sino-French War (1884–85). French Indochina was formed on October 17, 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (which together form modern Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia. In the four protectorates, the French formally left the local rulers in power, who were the Emperors of Vietnam, Kings of Cambodia, and Kings of Luang Prabang, but in fact gathered all powers in their hands, the local rulers acting only as figureheads.
Territorial conflict in the Indochinese peninsula for the expansion of French Indochina led to the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. In 1893, the French authorities in Indochina used border disputes, followed by the Paknam naval incident, to provoke a crisis. French gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of Lao territories east of the Mekong River. King Chulalongkorn appealed to the British, but the British minister told the King to settle on whatever terms he could get, and he had no choice but to comply. Britain’s only gesture was an agreement with France guaranteeing the integrity of the rest of Siam. In exchange, Siam had to give up its claim to the Thai-speaking Shan region of north-eastern Burma to the British, and cede Laos to France. Laos was subsequently added to French Indochina.
The French, however, continued to pressure Siam, and in 1906–07 they manufactured another crisis. This time, Siam had to concede French control of territory on the west bank of the Mekong opposite Luang Prabang and around Champasak in southern Laos, as well as western Cambodia. France also occupied the western part of Chantaburi. In 1904, to get back Chantaburi Siam had to give Trat to French Indochina. Trat became part of Thailand again on March 23, 1907, in exchange for many areas east of the Mekong like Battambang, Siam Nakhon and Sisophon.
On February 10, 1930, there was an uprising by Vietnamese soldiers in the French colonial army’s Yên Bái garrison. The Yên Bái mutiny was sponsored by the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng (VNQDĐ, or Vietnamese Nationalist Party). The attack was the largest disturbance brewed up by the Cần Vương monarchist restoration movement of the late nineteenth century. The aim of the revolt was to inspire a wider uprising among the general populace in an attempt to overthrow the colonial authority. The VNQDĐ had previously attempted to engage in clandestine activities to undermine French rule, but increasing French scrutiny of their activities led to their leadership group taking the risk of staging a large scale military attack in the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam.
In the 1930s, Siam engaged France in a series of talks concerning the repatriation of Siamese provinces held by the French. In 1938, under the Front Populaire administration in Paris, France had agreed to repatriate Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Siem Pang and the associated provinces (approximately 13) to Siam. Meanwhile, Siam took over control of those areas, in anticipation of the upcoming treaty. Signatories from each country were dispatched to Tokyo to sign the treaty repatriating the lost provinces.
In September 1940, the newly created regime of Vichy France granted Japan’s demands for military access to Tonkin following the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, which lasted until the end of the Pacific War. This allowed Japan better access to China in the Second Sino-Japanese War against the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, but it was also part of Japan’s strategy for dominion over the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Thailand took the opportunity of French weaknesses to reclaim previously lost territories, resulting in the Franco-Thai War between October 1940 and May 9, 1941. The Thai forces generally did well on the ground, but Thai objectives in the war were limited. In January, Vichy French naval forces decisively defeated Thai naval forces in the Battle of Ko Chang. The war ended in May at the instigation of the Japanese, with the French forced to concede territorial gains for Thailand.
On March 9, 1945, with France liberated, Germany in retreat, and the United States ascendant in the Pacific, Japan decided to take complete control of Indochina. On April 8, the Japanese pressured Lao Crown Prince Sisavang Vatthana to declare the independence of Laos, then launched the Second French Indochina Campaign. The Japanese kept power in Indochina until the news of their government’s surrender came through in August.
After World War II, France petitioned for the nullification of the 1938 Franco-Siamese Treaty and attempted to reassert itself in the region, but came into conflict with the Viet Minh, a coalition of Communist and Vietnamese nationalists led by Hồ Chí Minh, founder of the Indochinese Communist Party. During the war, the United States had supported the Viet Minh in resistance against the Japanese; the group had been in control of the countryside since the French gave way in March 1945.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Stilwell privately made it adamantly clear that the French were not to reacquire French Indochina after the war was over. He told Secretary of State Cordell Hull the Indochinese were worse off under the French rule of nearly 100 years than they were at the beginning. Roosevelt asked Chiang Kai-shek if he wanted Indochina, to which Chiang Kai-shek replied: “Under no circumstances!”
After the war, 200,000 Chinese troops under General Lu Han sent by Chiang Kai-shek invaded northern Indochina north of the 16th parallel to accept the surrender of Japanese occupying forces, and remained there until 1946. The Chinese used the VNQDĐ, the Vietnamese branch of the Chinese Kuomintang, to increase their influence in Indochina and put pressure on their opponents. Chiang Kai-shek threatened the French with war in response to maneuvering by the French and Ho Chi Minh against each other, forcing them to come to a peace agreement, and in February 1946 he also forced the French to surrender all of their concessions in China and renounce their extraterritorial privileges in exchange for withdrawing from northern Indochina and allowing French troops to reoccupy the region starting in March 1946.
After persuading Emperor Bảo Đại to abdicate in his favor, on September 2, 1945, President Ho Chi Minh declared independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But before September’s end, a force of British and Free French soldiers, along with captured Japanese troops, restored French control. Bitter fighting ensued in the First Indochina War. In 1950, Ho again declared an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was recognized by the fellow Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union. Fighting lasted until May 1954, when the Viet Minh won the decisive victory against French forces at the grueling Battle of Điện Biên Phủ.
On April 27 1954, the Geneva Conference produced the Geneva Agreements between North Vietnam and France. Provisions included supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Indochina, granting it independence from France, declaring the cessation of hostilities and foreign involvement in internal Indochina affairs, and delineating northern and southern zones into which opposing troops were to withdraw. The Agreements mandated unification on the basis of internationally supervised free elections to be held in July 1956.
It was at this conference that France relinquished any claim to territory in the Indochinese peninsula. The United States and South Vietnam rejected the Geneva Accords and never signed. South Vietnamese leader Diem rejected the idea of nationwide elections as proposed in the agreement, saying that a free election was impossible in the communist North and that his government was not bound by the Geneva Accords. France did withdraw, turning the north over to the Communists while the Bảo Đại regime, with American support, kept control of the South.
The federation lasted until July 21, 1954.
The events of 1954 marked the beginnings of serious United States involvement in Vietnam and the ensuing Vietnam War. Laos and Cambodia also became independent in 1954, but were both drawn into the Vietnam War.
Unlike Algeria, French settlement in Indochina did not occur at a grand scale. By 1940, only about 34,000 French civilians lived in French Indochina, along with a smaller number of French military personnel and government workers. The principal reasons why French settlement did not grow in a manner similar to that in French North Africa (which had a population of over 1 million French civilians) were because French Indochina was seen as a colonie d’exploitation économique (economic colony) rather than a colonie de peuplement (settlement colony helping Metropolitan France from being overpopulated), and because Indochina was distant from France itself.
During French colonial rule, the French language was the principal language of education, government, trade, and media and French was widely introduced to the general population. French became widespread among urban and semi-urban populations and became the principal language of the elite and educated. This was most notable in the colonies of Tonkin and Cochinchina (Northern and Southern Vietnam respectively), where French influence was most heavy, while Annam, Laos and Cambodia were less influenced by French education.
Despite the dominance of the French language, local populations still largely spoke their native languages. After French rule ended, the French language was still largely used among the new governments (with the exception of North Vietnam) but since then English, increasingly taught in schools across the country, has massively replaced French as the second language. Today, less than 0.5% of the population of Vietnam can speak French.
Funding for the colonial government came by means of taxes on locals and the French government established a near monopoly on the trade of opium, salt and rice alcohol. The French administration established quotas of consumption for each Vietnamese village, thereby compelling villagers to purchase and consume set amounts of monopolized goods, including alcohol and opium. The trade of those three products formed about 44% of the colonial government’s budget in 1920 but declined to 20% by 1930 as the colony began to economically diversify.
The colony’s principal bank was the Banque de l’Indochine, established in 1875 and was responsible for minting the colony’s currency, the Indochinese piastre. Indochina was the second most invested-in French colony by 1940 after Algeria, with investments totaling up to 6.7 million francs.
Beginning in the 1930s, France began to exploit the region for its natural resources and to economically diversify the colony. Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin became a source of tea, rice, coffee, pepper, coal, zinc and tin while Cambodia became a center for rice and pepper crops. Only Laos was seen initially as an economically unviable colony, although timber was harvested at a small scale from there.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the growing automobile industry in France resulted in the growth of the rubber industry in French Indochina, and plantations were built throughout the colony, especially in Annam and Cochinchina. France soon became a leading producer of rubber through its Indochina colony and Indochinese rubber became prized in the industrialized world. The success of rubber plantations in French Indochina resulted in an increase in investment in the colony by various firms such as Michelin. With the growing number of investments in the colony’s mines and rubber, tea and coffee plantations, French Indochina began to industrialize as factories opened in the colony. These new factories produced textiles, cigarettes, beer and cement which were then exported throughout the French Empire.
The first stamps used in the region were French Colonies general issues used in Cochin China around Saigon from 1872 until 1892/ These were obliterated with lozenges of dots with CCH or CCN and a figure. The first specific stamps for Cochin China were released on May 16, 1886, using the French Colonies stamps with the overprint of 5 or 5 C. CH. along with a 1 or 5, and also on the generic colonies stamps, were issued for those territories. On January 21, 1888, stamps were crudely overprinted A & T for Annam and Tonkin. The 1889 unification of colonial administration first resulted in surcharges in January 1889, on the 35c French Colonies stamp, reading INDO-CHINE 89 / 5 / R D (January 8) and INDO-CHINE / 1889 / R – D (January 10), where the “R” referred to the colonial governor P. Richaud, and the “D” to the postmaster at Saigon, General P. Demars (Scott #1-2).
In 1892, the first regular stamps of French Indochina were issued with the standard Navigation and Commerce design, and inscribed INDO-CHINE. Succeeding stamps were issued in 1900, all in the same basic design with different colors (Scott #3-21). The inscription of INDO-CHINE in the typical blank box at the bottom was replaced with the printing of INDO-CHINE FRANCAISE on the definite stamps issued in 1904, portraying an allegory of France (Scott #24-40).
Subsequent issues included an attractive and artistic set featuring native women in 1907 (Scott #41-58), a surcharged set of 1919 necessitated by the changeover from centimes and francs to cents and piasters in the previous year (Scott #65-82), and a reprinted set valued in the new currency, starting with a 1/10-cent denomination (Scott #94-114).
Sets featuring local sights appeared in 1927, 1931, and in 1936 depicting cultural views like a farmer plowing the ground or constructions, APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap), and native emperors of Annam and Cambodia. They are followed by a variety of commemoratives honoring notable figures, up to a last airmail issue on June 13, 1949, which was issued in only small numbers due to the growing rebellion. Finally, a number of issues in the 1940’s were later overprinted and used by the Viet Minh for usage throughout Vietnam. French Indochina stamps continued in use during the World War II Japanese occupation and were subsequently replaced by the independent issues of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.