Several countries with the largest Vietnamese populations today – United States, Canada and Australia – did not have such communities until after the Vietnam War. France, the largest non-English speaking community in the Vietnamese diaspora with about 300,000 strong, illustrates a much more complex tapestry of Vietnamese immigration that started well before the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
The diversity among the migrant stock from Vietnam has led to a notably divided Vietnamese community in France. This has worked against attempts to develop a sense of ethnic solidarity in the community over the years.
The Vietnamese first began immigrating to France in large numbers in the early 1900s as a direct result of French rule over Indochina from 1885 to 1954. With colonial ties to the West, the Vietnamese initially migrated to France as soldiers, workers and students long before the arrival of the refugees.
As a result, there were already tens of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants living in France even before the onset of the Vietnam War. At least 20,000 Vietnamese workers had immigrated to France during World War II alone. These pre-war Vietnamese immigrants differed greatly from the post-war Vietnamese refugees that followed them.
The older wave of Vietnamese immigrants did not share the same anti-communist fervor as the newer wave of Vietnamese refugees who had been forced to flee their homeland after 1975. In fact, some of the older immigrants openly supported the communist ideals and even desired to one day return to communist Vietnam.
The existing pro-communist sector of French Vietnamese community in France soon fell into conflict with the staunchly anti-communist new wave of Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War.
According to some sources, this division initially manifested through violence in the late 1970s with several Vietnamese on both sides being hospitalized after physical altercations. Today, the Vietnamese community in France is still divided, but the division no longer expresses itself through overt violence but instead through covert avoidance.
Recent conversations with those in the community depicted much calmer relations involving the evasion of politics in Vietnamese public places such as cultural events. Yet separation within the community still exists. There are, for example, two completely separate events for holidays such as Tết (i.e. Lunar New Year); one for the pro-communists and one for the anti-communists.
The apparent political division among the Vietnamese in France also has made it difficult to progress as one cohesive ethnic community with political influence. The Vietnamese in France have excelled in economic and educational achievements as individuals. However, at the community level, they have been unable to achieve any notable successes.
The pro-communist vs. anti-communist division in France explains, to a certain extent, the lack of a Vietnamese voice in French politics. In the United States where most Vietnamese came after 1975 as refugees and are more politically homogeneous, the community has attained various political seats in several states. Former U.S. Representative Joseph Cao of Louisiana is just one of nine Vietnamese Americans who either had or currently have prominent political positions in the federal government.
In contrast, Vietnamese representation in French politics has been largely absent. Some Vietnamese in France commented on how, unlike in the United States, there were no well-known Vietnamese politicians in their country.
In an attempt to change the Vietnamese political track record in France or lack thereof, the Union des Vietnamiens Republicains (i.e. Union of Vietnamese Republicans) recently held an open debate in Paris to address issues concerning the Vietnamese community and the Asian population, in general, in France.
The UVR, which was formed in the last couple years, seeks to act as a liaison between the Vietnamese community and the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (i.e. Union for a Popular Movement), a center-right political party in France, which openly opposes the largest opposition group, the Parti Socialiste (i.e. Socialist Party) as well as the Parti Communiste Francais (i.e. French Communist Party), a party supported by the pro-communist Vietnamese.
Given their challenging political situation, what does the future hold for the Vietnamese community in France? Although the relationship between the pro-communist and anti-communist Vietnamese in France has become less violent over the years, it is difficult to see any signs of ethnic solidarity in the community given the ongoing opposition between the two political camps.
Only when this divide in the community is breached will the Vietnamese in France be able to achieve the political voice of their American cousins.
Jane Le Skaife is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. She is currently conducting her dissertation research involving a cross-national comparison of Vietnamese refugees in France and the United States.
Photo by wakingphotolife.