France marks 1954 colonial humiliation

France marks 1954 colonial humiliation

As France consolidates its business and military ties with Vietnam, which has courted old foes in Paris and Washington in an attempt to offset the growing might of China, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has marked one the country’s heaviest colonial defeats.
Jacques Allaire, a 94-year-old former colonel and prisoner of war, accompanied Philippe to the remote valley where the decisive, 56-day battle of Dien Bien Phu raged, ending French colonial rule in Vietnam.
“This is like being in a dream, I’m thinking of my comrades, of all my men,” said a tearful Allaire, who was held for more than seven months after the legendary battle.
He called the area unrecognisable.
“It was a small village, far from everything. Today it’s a city, which proves that Viet Minh fighters didn’t fight for nothing,” the former French colonel said.
The battle in the hilly, remote valley left 13,000 dead on both sides in under two months, as the Vietnamese outnumbered and surrounded amassed French forces, who were equipped with superior weaponry, and bombarded them with heavy artillery.
The hilly outpost on the border near Laos effectively ended the eight-year colonial war.
In an attempt to cut Viet Minh supply lines into Laos and to maintain a base for operations, the French base was soon isolated when the Vietnamese cut the roads into Dien Bien Phu, making it dependent on air supplies. Renowned Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the outpost with 40,000 men, and despite heavy US aid, the base was overrun on May 7, 1954.
The French prime minister, who had signed several trade deals in Hanoi, called for the two countries’ “common past” to be remembered, “in a peaceful way”.
Dien Bien Phu led to Vietnam’s division into the north, under Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, and a pro-US regime run from Saigon and the American war, which ended in 1975.
France is one of Vietnam’s most important allies today, with bilateral trade worth US$7.6 billion and close military ties.
Quizzed about his decision to visit the site of a crushing defeat for France, Philippe said: “What I find surprising is the fact so few people have done this before me.”
Dien Bien Phu was also visited by then-president Francois Mitterrand in 1993.
Philippe, who toured France’s former underground command bunker and lit incense at a memorial plaque, said: “For those who lived through those moments, I know the emotion is very intense and once again the message that I want to convey here, is a message of admiration, of respect and of pride.”
The French national humiliation, particularly acute within the army, had lasting repercussions on public opinion and contributed, along with the colonial war in Algeria, to the fall of the Fourth Republic in 1958.

Captured French soldiers from Dien Bien Phu. France’s attempt to regain its grip on Vietnam after its Second World War defeat was ill-conceived. Picture credit: Wikimedia

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