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Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell to France almost by default. France's strategic concerns focused on the continent of Europe, but whenever visionaries like Colbert, Louis XIV's brilliant naval minister, managed to erect the basis for a coherent colonial strategy, they were under cut by a change in regime. Direct involvement in Vietnam came in 1787 under Louis XVI with the consummation of a treaty, drawn up by a Jesuit missionary, to intervene in a Vietnamese civil war on behalf of an overthrown Nguyen dynast. The intervention succeeded despite the disapproval of its royal patron, who was overthrown by the Revolution before he could cancel the expedition; from the French perspective it accomplished little beyond securing a degree of toleration or Catholicism, which faded as apprehensions of European influence grew. After a false start in 1847under Louis Philippe, the French gained a foothold in Vietnam in 1859 under Napoleon III, when a small garrison, put into Saigon as an afterthought to a punitive expedition prompted by persecution of missionaries and local Catholics, seized Da Nang as a means of forcing the Emperor to make Vietnam a French protectorate. The incident ended instead in humiliating withdrawal, leaving the Saigon garrison isolated until it was relieved two years later. Using Saigon for leverage, the French coerced the Emperor progressively to cede control over adjacent provinces, and by 1867 France controlled all of southern Vietnam, renamed Cochin china.

From this beginning, French control expanded more in response to local impulse and opportunity than in pursuit of any grand design. Fear of losing out to another European power in the game of colonial expansion counted for more than rational economic calculation, and the costs of conquest more than offset any economic gain. Not until the turn of century did the French make their empire self-supporting by means of a system of taxation and state-run monopolies, including salt and opium, which came down disproportionately on the indigenous populace. In 1874, the Emperor recognized Cochin china as a French colony, in order to secure the withdrawal of a French force that had seized Hanoi on its own initiative. In 1879, the French reoccupied Hanoi and expanded their control over the Red River valley and contiguous provinces, which they dubbed Tonkin. When the boy emperor, Ham Nghi, protested, French marines attacked and looted the imperial palace at Hue; the Emperor fled, ordering a national uprising, only to be captured and exiled to Algeria. Replacing Ham Nghi with a compliant brother, the French tightened their control over Annam, as they termed central Vietnam, snuffing out the last vestiges of independence. France formalized her conquest in 1887 with the formation of the Indochinese Union, consisting of Tonkin, Annam, Cochinchina and Cambodia, and completed it with the annexation of Laos in 1893.

The Vietnamese took no more kindly to French rule than they had to Chinese, but modern weaponry and European military discipline rendered overt resistance futile. The expedition that took Hanoi in 1879 consisted of only two companies of infantry, or 600 men, and if considerably more troops were required to stifle opposition in the countryside - 20,000 were stationed in Tonkin by the end of 1883 - the military equation still favored the Europeans. It is worth noting, too, that the Vietnamese institutions which the French replaced had been showing signs of strain when the French appeared, and that opposition to the Nguyen dynasty, restored with French aid in 1802, had a strong anti-mandarin flavor. Opposition, while often bitter, was uncoordinated and lacked a popular base of support and, by the eve of World War I, resistance in the name of traditional values had effectively flickered out.

French control lasted less than seventy years, but it had a profound effect On Indochina, particularly Vietnam. The French banned Chinese pictographs and mandated the use of quocnguscnpt, and, though the results hardly produced broad-based literacy, traditional Confucian respect for education diverted into Western channels. Educated Vietnamese, particularly those schooled in France, were exposed to liberal and radical political thought ... and to the contrast between the ideals of Voltaire and Montesquieu and the condescending, racist arrogance of their colonial masters. Unsurprisingly, a high proportion of Vietnamese nationalists and revolutionary leaders were French educated.

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