After WWII France was in rebuilding mode, and yet they insisted on trying to reclaim Indo-China. It would seem that in the new world order this did not make much sense for a country that was trying to rebuild itself to commit to such a massive amount of blood and treasure to something that would arguably not produce much dividends in the future.

I'm looking for some articulated reasons by the post-WWII French government to try and reclaim the territory, or a compelling cost-benefit argument as to why they pursued this course of action.

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    Did you actually try to find some answer yourself before asking?
    – o0'.
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 8:34
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    I did some searching, but as far as I could find the French were interested in reclaiming it because it was theirs previously. I asked the question because I was wondering if there were political, economic, or other factors that influenced the French outside of "it was ours previously and we want it back."
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 13:40
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    @jfrankcarr Given that De Gaulle was not in power from the end of WWII to the independence of Indo-China, no. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 22:33
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    I can't think of any example where a colonial power left a colony "unclaimed" after WWII; as far as I know, all colonies reverted to their colonial masters before becoming independent in the 1940s-60s. Why would France be any different?
    – Gaurav
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 8:08
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    @Gaurav well I would say that France may have given it pause because of the devastation suffered from WWII and the idea of the spread of democracy, self-determination for the colonies, etc.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 20:48

3 Answers 3


A general trend I have noticed in French history, dating from the fall of France after the defeat at Waterloo and the subsequent losses in the Congress of Vienna, is that there was and is a strong urge to regain a sense of international prestige. Throughout the nineteenth century France slowly degraded from being the world capital of liberal democracy and intellectualism. In the latter half of that century, France suffered an embarrassing and crushing defeat by the newly formed power of Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. This defeat was then compounded by the utter devastation of what was once the most feared military force in the world.

Even in much of the 20th century France is seen as a major world power. As a personal aside, my mother's generation in the Netherlands learned French as their first foreign language, and despite the rise of America, it wasn't until roughly generation X that English replaced French in this regard. Taken all together this explains much of France's attempts to maintain their cultural identity and obtain positions of international importance (such as their attempt to be the home of the EU government among other things). While there are some economic arguments that can be made on the behalf of French colonialism to justify French action in Indo-China, they seem to be much less important than the irrational cultural motivation for doing so (similar to America's need to invade overcome the "Vietnam syndrome" to 'justify' the overblown invasion of Grenada).

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    This answer is creative and intriguing. Do you by chance have any sources to add so weight to your argument?
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 0:59
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    While your point about the particular importance the French attach to international prestige isvery true, I think that in this instance the more general explanation is the truer one: all colonial powers tried to regain or to retain, as the case was, their colonies after WWII. They also all failed. Occam's razor must intervene, I am afraid. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 14:16
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    @FelixGoldberg: Weren't the British at least one exception? To my knowledge, they didn't try too hard (no big time wars) to retain any of their colonies, but rather allowed most of their colonies to gradually transit into independence.
    – user3521
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 21:41
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    @KennyLJ Good point - the British really did put less effort into it, in a sense. Perhaps because they won the war, they felt less need to compensate than the other powers. But there were military efforts nevertheless: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayan_Emergency and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mau_Mau_Uprising Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 22:16
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    @FelixGoldberg Let's add that while most French colonies were de facto taken, occupied by other force or got looser ties, the British had less of this problem. Yes, Malaya and Singapore was lost, but the status India, Australia etc remained intact during the war. So while the British also was preserve status quo, had less urgency to actively act on it.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 6:23

There is something to BrotherJack's answer but just considering it an “irrational” urge for greatness and prestige is a little short-sighted.

A few other factors:

  • France had a huge colonial empire, not only Indochina. Defending its claim to Indochina was also a way to show it did not intend to give up all this. It's still debatable whether colonies in general are a net gain for the mainland but it's clearly a much larger issue. In fact, in the immediate post-WWII period, British – not French – troops briefly assumed control of the region after the surrender of the Japanese, because Britain also had a stake in making sure the old world order would not be upset.

    It's only after the Indochina war that it became clear that old-style colonialism was unsustainable in this day and age and that France decided it was just as beneficial to have ostensibly independent states under its influence rather than actual colonies. It then initiated/encouraged the independence of its African colonies (with the - huge - exception of Algeria).

    And for all the setbacks and ugliness of it all (up to the attitude France took during the genocide in Rwanda), France is still very influential in many parts of its former colonial empire so you cannot easily discount this policy as wholly irrational and emotion-driven. It does serve some interests really well.

  • France did not immediately commit huge resources and probably did not realise what it was up against. Just like the US later, it offered support to a local surrogate state and then got drawn in a much broader conflict than expected, ramping up forces along the way (many of the soldiers came from the rest of the French colonial empire by the way).

    Nobody thought “let's sacrifice 100 000 men to the greatness of France“ (that's excluding local forces), it was more like “let's send 20 000 soldiers and we will quell the revolt like we did before”. You have to realise that uprisings and violent protests were relatively common, France never had a very deep control over its colonies.

  • It was a cold war conflict. France fought against the Viet Minh guerrilla between 1945 and 1949 but the war changed completely in 1950 (also the time of the Korea war, incidentally). After that, France fought an open war against a formidable Chinese-backed communist force, not only because of narrow interests but for broader geopolitical reasons.

    I have read somewhere on this site that the Vietnam war was the US somehow stepping up to rescue France from its incompetence but that's nonsense. It's exactly the other way around: France fought for much longer than it should (and possibly would otherwise) have at the behest of and with logistical and financial support from the US as part of the global fight against communism.

  • Finally, and I am not sure this is a major factor in this particular war, but it's interesting to know that colonialism wasn't simply a top-down process, neatly planned and engineered from the centre. You can see that when you look at how Indochina was conquered in the first place. Local French forces gradually took control of the territory (often ostensibly reacting to some threat or slight from a local leader) and then asked for more support from the mainland. The colonial elite also had strong lobbies to represent their interests back home.

    Historical research also shows that most people in mainland France simply did not care much about the Indochina war, political parties (even the French communist party!) did not make it an issue. It's not like the whole of France united behind it or fought bitterly over it (as happened during the Algerian war).

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    It is interesting that people criticise France over Indo-China, but you seldom hear such criticism of Britain's war against communists in Malaya (1948-1961), perhaps because the latter was successful. But there was a general view in the West in the late 1940s that communism needed to be contained. But what always puzzles me is why America thought, having seen the impossibility of a regular army winning in such conditions of well-supplied jungle insurgency that they might win where the French had failed.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 7:45
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    And one of the reasons both France and America failed in Vietnam was that they did not have sufficient troops trained in jungle fighting. In Malaya Britain used the Gurkhas for the really difficult stuff, but had also acquired an expertise themselves in Burma against the Japanese.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 7:53
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    @WS2 Note than when France reclaimed Indochina in 1945-6, it was occupied by Chinese troops that took their orders from the Kuomintang, not by Communists. Actually the Chinese themselves were fighting the embryonic Viet Minh movement .
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:39
  • @Evargalo But by the time of Dien Bhien Phu in 1954, the Viet Minh was a well-supplied communist force - not supplied by Beijing, so much as by Moscow. I'm not clear about the point you are making.
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 6:58
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    @WS2 : AFAIU the OP, this question is about France's motivation to reclaim Indochina in 1945-6, not about the fifties. Although the conflict evolved to become a part of the Cold War after 1949-50, "fighting communism" was not a purpose of Leclerc's Expeditionary Force than arrived in Indochina in October 1945.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 8:29

There's a lot of good sense, and even the occasional stray fact, in the answers above, but there is one slight error of perspective winding through them all: all treat "England" and "France" as single forces with single policies and interests. This is unreal.

In the period 1945 to 1950, both countries were strongly divided on left-right lines. The Communists came very close to taking power fairly, by honestly winning an election, in France. Labour took power in Britain in 1945.

In both countries, the left was foundationally anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and contemptuous of their Tories (England) and failed militarists, France. The Labour government withdrew from India and Pakistan, and it was a Socialist President, Mendes-France, who surrendered after Dien Bien Phu.

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    I actually mentioned the various splits within French politics in my answer, the charge that it treats “France” as a single force is ludicrous. Importantly, the division around colonial policy did not fall neatly along the left-right spectrum. Parts of the French left (most famously Jules Ferry) was strongly colonialist, trying to couch this policy as a way to advance humanity rather than greed. The communist left was indeed ideologically anti-colonialist but not that concerned about the Indochina war initially.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:39
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    The story is similar on the right. Since the 18th century, colonial elites organised to defend their interests and lobby at times reluctant mainland politicians. At the end of the 19th century, it was even common to talk about the “parti colonial”. And you probably know that it's a right-wing nationalist politician who oversaw the end of the war in Algeria.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:44

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