What Was French Indochina?

The French colonized Indochina, including Cambodia, for more than 50 years.
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French Indochina was the collective name for the French colonial regions of Southeast Asia from colonization in 1887 to independence and the subsequent Vietnam Wars of the mid-1900s. During the colonial era, French Indochina was made up of Cochin-China, Annam, Cambodia, Tonkin, Kwangchowan, and Laos.

Today, the same region is divided into the nations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. While much war and civil unrest tainted much of their early histories, these nations are faring far better since their French occupation ended over 70 years ago.

Early Exploitation and Colonization

Although the French and Vietnam relationship may have started as early as the 17th century with missionary voyages, the French took power in the area and established a federation called French Indochina in 1887.

They designated the area as a "colonie d'exploitation," or in the more polite English translation, a "colony of economic interests." High taxes on local consumption of goods like salt, opium, and rice alcohol filled the coffers of the French colonial government, with just those three items comprising 44% of the government's budget by 1920.

With the local population's wealth almost tapped out, the French began in the 1930s to turn to exploiting the area's natural resources instead. What is now Vietnam became a rich source of zinc, tin, and coal as well as cash crops such as rice, rubber, coffee, and tea. Cambodia supplied pepper, rubber, and rice; Laos, however, had no valuable mines and was used only for low-level timber harvesting.

The availability of plentiful, high-quality rubber led to the establishment of famous French tire companies such as Michelin. France even invested in industrialization in Vietnam, building factories to produce cigarettes, alcohol, and textiles for export.

Japanese Invasion During the Second World War

The Japanese Empire invaded French Indochina in 1941 and the Nazi-allied French Vichy government handed over Indochina to Japan. During their occupation, some Japanese military officials encouraged nationalism and independence movements in the region. However, the military higher-ups and the home government in Tokyo intended to keep Indochina as a valuable source of such necessities as tin, coal, rubber, and rice.

As it turns out, instead of liberating these rapidly forming independent nations, the Japanese instead decided to add them to their so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

It soon became obvious to most Indochinese citizens that the Japanese intended to exploit them and their land just as ruthlessly as the French had done. This sparked the creation of a new guerrilla fighting force, the League for the Independence of Vietnam or "Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi"—usually called Viet Minh for short. The Viet Minh fought against the Japanese occupation, uniting peasant rebels with urban nationalists into a communist-tinged independence movement.

End of World War II and Indochinese Liberation

When the Second World War ended, France expected the other Allied Powers to return its Indochinese colonies to its control, but the people of Indochina had different ideas. 

They expected to be granted independence, and this difference of opinion led to the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War. In 1954, the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh defeated the French at the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the French gave up their claims to the former French Indochina through the Geneva Accord of 1954. 

However, the Americans feared that Ho Chi Minh would add Vietnam to the communist bloc, so they entered the war that the French had abandoned. After two additional decades of fighting, the North Vietnamese prevailed and Vietnam became an independent communist country. The peace also recognized the independent nations of Cambodia and Laos in Southeast Asia.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Cooper, Nikki. "France in Indochina: Colonial Encounters." New York: Berg, 2001.
  • Evans, Martin, ed. "Empire and Culture: The French Experience, 1830-1940." Basinstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 
  • Jennings, Eric T. "Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina." Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was French Indochina?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-was-french-indochina-195328. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). What Was French Indochina? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-french-indochina-195328 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was French Indochina?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-french-indochina-195328 (accessed May 29, 2023).