Last Updated 11 Feb 2021

French Imperialism in Vietnam

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The average person in France was unaware of conditions in their African colonies. And the same can be said concerning French rule in Vietnam, where the French were equally oppressive. In the late nineteenth century, the French overthrew a feudal monarchy and fought long, extended military campaigns against resistance to their rule. Many of Vietnam's educated elite opposed French rule and would not work for the French, but the French found a few opportunistic Vietnamese who would. In Vietnam, and elsewhere in Indochina, Frenchmen grabbed lands, and they built plantations that produced rubber and other forest products.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, France's colonial administration in Vietnam encouraged French commercial enterprises. They built railways, roads and hydraulic works to serve these enterprises. Vietnam was a thickly populated, predominately peasant society, but projects that would have served Vietnamese farmers were ignored. Vietnam's farmers continued to suffer from the usual droughts and floods. Per capita rice consumption declined. And what had been Vietnam's handicraft industry was destroyed.

A new class of Vietnamese had come into being: people who labored for the French as servants, or who labored in French-owned mines, on French-owned plantations, at French construction sites or in French-owned factories. The French paid them as little as they could -- hardly enough for survival, and sometimes not enough. As in Africa, the French were taxing the Vietnamese and drafting them to labor on public works. On one such project -- the Hanoi-Yunnan Phu railway -- 25,000 Vietnamese died. Conditions in Vietnam in general were creating a decline in Vietnam's population.

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The French in Vietnam established a monopoly in the production of salt, alcoholic beverages and opium. They taxed consumption of these. They encouraged Vietnamese to buy their opium, and money gained from their opium trade was an important part of the colonial administration's income. A French company, Fontaine, held a monopoly in making and selling alcoholic beverages in Vietnam, and all other distilling was banned and severely punished with imprisonment and confiscation of property.

And in 1902 the colonial administration made buying alcoholic beverages compulsory, each Vietnamese village having to consume a definite quantity in proportion to its population -- more of the behavior that French commerce and government dare not perpetrate on people in France. In 1908, Vietnamese farmers responded to a rise in taxes by marching to the French administration headquarters. For weeks, thousands of peasants picketed the governor's office in Hue and made passionate speeches, not only against taxes but forced labor. The protest spread, and the French countered with ferocity. Demonstrators were gunned down.

Whole villages were razed to the ground. Thousands were arrested, and two Vietnamese scholars who had spoken against French policies were executed. But in Vietnam and Africa, while French commercial operations were benefiting privately owned French companies, revenues from France's colonies were not paying the cost of maintenance and administration. Average French taxpayers - like British taxpayers - were subsidizing their nation's colonies.

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