When France fell to German invasion in May-June 1940, the fate of the French colonial empire, the second largest in the world after the United Kingdom, was left up in the air - and most prominently French Indochina, one of the jewels in the crown of France, but left essentially undefended. Soon afterwards, Imperial Japan moved in and occupied French Indochina - but left French administration, and French sovereignty, intact. This led to a delicate situation which is the focus of Philippe Grandjean's book L'Indochine face au Japon 1940-1945: Decoux - de Gaulle, un malentendu fatal which purports to explore how French Indochina developed in these 5 years, how the agreement was upheld - and how it came crashing down in a bitter drama between Free France led by Charles de Gaulle, the French Indochinese government of Decoux, and the Empire of Japan. Although it is reasonably good at covering the direct political facts of the situation, the misguided policies of de Gaulle which encouraged a Japanese invasion in 1945, and the coup d'état, it is dogged by a noticeably biased interpretation of the French rule, an overly sympathetic reading of Indochina's government, and a narrow focus, which combine to make it of far less general use than it would be otherwise.
Content-wise, the book is mostly chronological. At first, it starts out by describing the military forces available to the French, and then goes on to discuss the accords which the French were forced to sign with the Japanese for Japanese occupation but a continuation of French sovereignty. This is followed by describing how these accords were negotiated and put into practice, and their effects - and it vigorously insists that the result was that despite Japanese military transit agreements and economic integration, French Indochina continued to be sovereign, independent, and under French control, in stark contrast to the situation of German occupation in the metropole. After this it describes internal developments such as administrative reforms and economic development, before moving onto the external Gaullist efforts to prepare a campaign of resistance in Indochina against the Japanese, through paradrops of supplies, agents, and the creation of a Service Action for guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Combined with Japanese fears of an American landing in Indochina, abetted by the French, this led the Japanese to launch a coup d'état where they rapidly overwhelmed the French and seized direct control of Indochina. The remaining part of the book discusses what-if questions for what might have happened if this was avoided, and the results of the Japanese occupation, such as the terrible 1945 famine and the Communist take-over in the resulting power vacuum.
French writers have a different relationship to their empire than the Anglo-Saxon world, or least many French right-wing (which Philippe Grandjean I assume is), do. Reading through a French history book on colonialism, in French at least (I haven't read all that many English translations of French work) will often merit one the experience of constantly seeing references to "our empire," assuming that the reader and the author both come from the same background, that they both share the same relationship as Frenchpeople looking back on their lost empire. The sympathy is with the French soldiers, diplomats, and leaders, instead of with colonized people. Now, certainly, it is possible to go too far with villainizing colonialism and the people who took part in it - they operated in a moral framework where many of them assumed that they were doing a just thing, or at least not a negative one, and it is easy to critique people in the past for having done something when it is safely gone, while ignoring one's own complicity with sins in the present. But the frank and clear siding and apologist writing for the French colonial empire is a jarring tone and one which sets the tone for the book.
Grandjean seems determined to write a positive history of French Indochina, and he emphasizes constantly a view of French Indochina as led by wise and capable leadership, its effective colonial policies, the support of the population for French policies, stresses that the French were protecting the Indochinese population, and constantly declares that the fall of French Indochina was a catastrophic tragedy which opened the gates for the horrors of Communism. It ignores broadly negative elements of the story. For example, its section on economic development in Indochina, with the attempts at local industrialization and substitution of imports, does not deal with in the slightest with the massive inflation which gripped the country and which made life increasingly dear and expensive for the indigenous population, and the privileged economic status of the French in the country compared to the natives. Indeed, the native Vietnamese (and Cambodians, Laotians, and various smaller groups such as the Montagnards) hardly enter at all into the story: it is overwhelmingly concerned with the 40,000 French in the colony, and neglects the side of the 30 million Indochinese.
This is sometimes combined with stereotypes and broad generalizations on Vietnamese attitudes and psychology, such as repeatedly emphasizing that the French held, for the Vietnamese, the Mandate of Heaven - and that this is what gave the French legitimacy. It seems like a terrible generalization and simplistic impression of French Indochina's authority, and it ignores the extensive work of French internal security agencies such as the Sûreté, the extensive prison camps, colonial repressions up to the use of bombers on protests.
For the internal developments of French Indochina, the book is extremely biases and while it does cover most of the general themes which other books have noted - the attempt at creating an Indochinese identity, the promotion of sports and youth movement, the education initiatives, and administrative reform - it fails to present a well-balanced picture of the development of the colony. It also ignores various external matters, such as Guangzhouwan in China, officially part of French Indochina. Books such as Vichy sous les Tropiques or Français et Japonais en Indochine, 1940-1940 are much better tomes for the internal developments of the colony.
With this being said, the book's central work is about the interplay between the Japanese, French Indochina, and the Gaullist government of France, and while it is too conciliatory towards the Indochinese government (which after all, was no neutral, technocratic government bent purely on keeping Indochina safe from war and loyal to France, but which carried out purges of Gaullists, Jews, Freemasons, and vigorously embraced the Révolution nationale), it does provide a strong analysis of why the Japanese were willing to leave the French in Indochina so long, and how the dangerously out of touch policy of the Gaullist leadership in France encouraged the Japanese to launch their May 9th coup which put an end to French administration in the country. Grandjean does a great job of explaining the different ideas at work, such as the illusion in Paris that the Indochinese population was firmly attached to France and the way in which the glow of the resistance in France inspired them to attempt the same in Indochina, the Indochinese government's comparative focus on stability and maintaining order compared to the Gaullist belief in the need for a resurrection and regaining French honor by military action, and how French plans to prepare for action and resist the Japanese helped cause the Japanese to strike against the French. The author treads on much more unsteady ground with his vivid interest in counterfactual what-if arguments of what might have happened if the Japanese didn't launch their coup d'état and French Indochina survived to the end of the war (it seems absurdly optimistic about the willingness of the French to negotiate with the Indochinese for independence, given just how much blood the French spilled attempting to do exactly the opposite during the First Indochinese War, and their strong anti-nationalist efforts in French Syria just a few years prior), but concerning the key political event of the book, he gives a good overview.
So if one is interested purely in the political (and to so some extent military, since the fighting of the coup d'état is covered, but does focus to a great extent on eulogizing the French resistance), side of the collapse of French Indochina, between the Japanese, French, and Gaullists, the book does a decent job - but it is far from providing a good general history of French Indochina during WW2. Its biases, lack of focus on the Indochinese side, and relatively narrow focus, other than the few chapters on internal affairs, makes it a very specialized and often flawed book.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas