There seems to be a strong faction of French writers and historians who leap to the defense of the record of French colonialism in Indochina. L'Indochine face au Japon, 1940-1945: Decoux-de Gaulle, un malentendu fatal by Philippe Grandjean does the same in the colony, and one can see it in other books - a defensiveness which strikes the Anglophone reader, he who lives in countries where increasingly the word colonialist or imperialist has become the highest insult present (not that it seems to impact foreign policy very much) other than racist. Some French writers about colonialism - certainly not all of course! applaud the record of French colonialism, and some even take up the difficult effort of attempting to resuscitate the heavily damaged prestige of France’s mission civilisatrice in Indochina. Again, it is very hard coming from a present context. Of course, there are plenty of Americans who are very sensitive about the United State’s own conduct in history during its colonial expansion across North America, as well as during wars overseas. But American relationships to European-style colonialism, even from those who defend it, lack the same visceral personal connection to colonialism that Europeans can have: few become deeply bound up in the good of say, American rule in the Philippines. So it makes it an odd thing to read a book like L'Indochine française, 1858-1954 by Pierre Montagnon, which is quite entirely unapologetic about the role of French colonialism in Indochina.
This is a lengthy way of saying that the book has an unescapable bias in favor of French colonialism in Indochina. It lauds the French for many achievements, and writes negatively of many of their opponents as well as minimizes some of the French crimes. How does it hold up, this bias taken into account? Not terribly well. It has a decent general history of course of events that created French Indochina, its expeditions and battles of the French conquest, but its depiction even of this is rather generalized. The point of view which is privileged is, save for an admittedly good collection of quotes, resolutely top down and principally European, in a mostly quite limited political framework. It lacks greatly for cultural, philosophical, environmental (although this is to be fair often neglected in general histories), social, or even economic sides. Other than providing a limited description of the public work projects and interwar economic growth based upon rice farming, coal, and rubber, it doesn’t much deal with economics for example. But even on the political side, it has its blinders. While it is decent for higher levels of French political life and the Indochinese elite, there is little about how French rule and political life was felt below. What about the prisons, now a common topic in scholarly research which has examined their role in producing Vietnamese nationalism, the surêté, the repressions? What about the spiritual and religious impacts of French rule? What about the opening to the world and the infusion of Western cultural ideals? These are only mentioned in passing or barely at all, and it leaves the Vietnamese with only a moniker of humanity. They have some, no doubt about it - the book has a touching depiction of the Vietnamese who fought for the French against the Communists in the 1950s, and their feelings of abandonment when the French left. But behind this courage, it doesn’t seem to view the Vietnamese as autonomous, thinking, human beings with their own history and individuality.
This is one of the more odd elements of the book: it is much more concerned with treating with what the French said, such as vigorously rejecting De Gaulle’s term of Indochina being a great ship adrift on the sea, than Vietnamese proclamations and memory. What about the famous independence declaration by Ho Chi Minh, with its damning condemnation of French colonialism - that the French had built more prisons than schools? Or about Ho Chi Minh himself, Montagon tries to declare that the belief that Ho Chi Minh had sympathy for France and the French was wrong based upon the treatment dealt to French prisoners of war in Viet Minh camps - but what about the brutal treatment that the French dealt to the Vietnamese in their own prison camps? Does that mean that the French too, hated the Vietnamese? Montagon reads as responding to an internal French battle, jousting at Gaullists and French anti-colonialists, rather than seriously engaging with the French record in Vietnam. Old battles are still being fought, for the memory of the Empire.
At times, Montagnon yields to stereotypes that are disconcerting, such as his characterization of the Japanese, idly writing about the French view of them as mild-manner tourists in rather insulting terms. It is partially a difference between English and French-language academic writing, since French academics works make less of an effort than their English equivalents to be completely neutral. But such statements rare revelatory of Montagnon’s perspective, with large, homogenous forces, such as Communism, his hated enemy, or his belief in the essential gratitude of the natives of Indochina towards the French and the French peace, and that this state of affairs was only broken by outside agitation.
The book is decent at providing a general summary, but biased, uncritical of French statements, lacking many elements of a complete history, and caught up more in French squabbles about Indochina than the country itself. There are better works on French colonialism in Indochina - it is just a matter of finding them!