Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam

01

Dec
2021

The French resort to the monarchy

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For five years after the events of 1930–1931, the Franco-Vietnamese relationship was in a surface holding pattern while, beneath the calm, important changes were occurring among the Vietnamese. The governor generals during this time were men who had many years of administrative experience in Indochina and had risen to high positions under Sarraut in the 1910s. Pierre Marie Antoine Pasquier (1877–1934) had been serving in Indochina since the 1890s. He had written and lectured extensively about Vietnamese culture, about which he was well informed and with which he was sympathetic, and he had served as senior administrator at Hue from 1920 to 1927. When Varenne was recalled due to pressure from the French colon lobby in 1928, Pasquier was named governor general. After Pasquier’s death in an airplane accident in 1934, Eugène Jean Louis René Robin (1872–1954) was appointed to succeed him. Robin had served as senior administrator of Tonkin from 1925 to 1930. Both Pasquier and Robin were conservative and held the trust of French people in Cochinchina. Their attitude toward the Vietnamese was paternalistic. Pasquier sternly enforced the status quo while resorting to a recycling of old solutions for new problems. With Sarraut-like rhetoric, he spoke admiringly of a traditional Vietnamese culture and of France’s duty to preserve it. While this was soothing to Vietnamese monarchists and conservatives, for many in the younger generation it was a bad dream from an oppressive past, the glorification of the worst features of their society, in particular the new colonial mandarinate and its combination of old-fashioned Confucian values with modern administrative coercive powers. The traditional Vietnamese culture espoused by Pasquier was in large part a colonial invention based on aspects of Confucianism that enforced gender and age subordinations in family relations. It also fed from the aura of a venerable antiquity with which the French invested the dynastic routine at “old Hue.” Having spent most of the 1920s overseeing the protectorate, Pasquier thought to renew Paul Bert’s alliance with the monarchy as a way of regaining Vietnamese interest in the colonial project. After the death of King Khai Dinh in 1925, when the French assumed direct control of the protectorate government at Hue, there was a series of proposals for reforming the monarchy. French colonial functionaries even drew up a draft for something like a constitutional monarchy. Pham Quynh, whose career began during Sarraut’s time as editor of a journal promoting the kind of traditional culture espoused by Pasquier, was a prominent Vietnamese proponent of returning administrative responsibilities to the monarchy. Other Vietnamese, such as Nguyen Van Vinh (1882–1936), a journalist who started his career as a French apologist during Sarraut’s time and became a translator of French literature into Vietnamese, subscribed to Phan Chu Trinh’s disdain for the monarchy and urged the French to brush aside the protectorate in order to modernize the government. The cabinet of royal ministers, although subdued by French supervision, was not utterly supine. The most influential minister was Nguyen Huu Bai (1863– 1935). He was a Roman Catholic from Quang Tri who, educated by the Church, entered public service in 1884 when the Patenôtre protectorate treaty was put into effect. He became the leading minister at court during the reign of Khai Dinh (1916–1925). He welcomed Phan Boi Chau to Hue after his pardon in December 1925 and assured French authorities that no problems would ensue. But in the years that followed, the French were increasingly irritated by his requests to return Bao Dai from Europe and to re-establish the provisions of the Patenôtre Treaty, which the French had superseded in 1925. Beneath his loyalty to the French was a staunch regard for an autonomous Vietnamese administration. The French tended to interpret his attitude as out of date and as shielding the corruptions and irrationalities that they considered to be the worst features of Vietnamese magistrates. One of Maurice Long’s initiatives in 1920 was to establish an elected Vietnamese consultative council for Annam; Sarrault had established such a council for Tonkin in 1913. The electorate was extremely limited and the council’s sphere of activity was severely restricted, but its profile was enhanced when Varenne redesigned the Tonkin and Annam councils as “representative chambers” in 1926. Council members began to add their voices to calls for a return to the Patenôtre Treaty being made by Nguyen Huu Bai and his ministerial colleagues. The French resolution that something needed to be done about the monarchy was strengthened by the crisis of 1930–1931, and ideas about reform came to be focused on planning for Bao Dai’s return from Europe. As would again be the case fifteen years later, the French turned to Bao Dai as a solution to their alienation from the Vietnamese. However, when Bao Dai arrived in Hue in September 1932, French caution and differing Vietnamese agendas imposed an inertia that was not broken for several months. Bao Dai, 20 years old and fresh from many years in Europe, was intelligent but indolent. Pham Quynh, 40 years old and a career propagandist for Franco-Vietnamese cooperation, was eager to modernize the monarchy and willingly negotiated between French sensibilities and Bao Dai’s kingly aspirations. Nguyen Huu Bai, 70 years old and a lifelong veteran of protectorate politics, became stubborn and, with senior members of the royal family, did not want to let slip an opportunity for restoring a semblance of real authority to the protectorate. Finally, in May 1933, Pasquier engineered a “coup” in which Nguyen Huu Bai and his elderly colleagues were retired and replaced in the royal council of ministers by younger men with Pham Quynh at their head. Despite the relatively  minor administrative, legal, and educational innovations that would be imple- mented by the protectorate over the next few years, it was quickly apparent that  the French had no intention of relinquishing any authority to the monarchy, and this contributed to the resignation of the Minister of the Interior, Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963), after less than three months in office. Like Nguyen Huu Bai, Ngo Dinh Diem came from a family that had been Roman Catholic for many generations. His father had been a senior official at Thanh Thai’s court and had retired to the countryside when Thanh Thai was deposed in 1907. Ngo Dinh Diem entered protectorate administration after graduating in 1921 from the School of Public Administration and Law in Hanoi, which prepared aspiring government officials in place of the abolished civil  service examination system. His eldest brother had preceded him into official- dom and had married a daughter of Nguyen Huu Bai. Ngo Dinh Diem rapidly  ascended the ranks of office due to his honesty and his effectiveness in governing rural areas, which impressed the French, and to the patronage of Nguyen Huu Bai that was based on family connections. His father’s unhappy experience with French treatment of the monarchy in 1907 and Nguyen Huu Bai’s belief that Pham Quynh was leading the monarchy deeper into the smothering French embrace was the context of Ngo Dinh Diem’s disillusionment with the new cabinet. His rapid rise in protectorate politics ended with his decision to never  again serve as a functionary of French rule. He spent the next decade in retire- ment under French surveillance.  The policy of reforming the monarchy lapsed with Pasquier’s death in 1934.  Robin, the new governor general, was not particularly interested in the mon- archy. He was more concerned about what he viewed as the most fundamental problem in Indochina, the pauperization of the peasantry that was exacerbated by the effects of the worldwide depression. However, the economic structure of Indochina resisted change, and during his short tenure (1934–1936) there was no time to do more than talk. Furthermore, by the mid 1930s, politics in France were shifting to the left in response to the rise of fascism in Europe, bringing new uncertainties to colonial administrators.

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