Why France needs to reframe its cultural diplomacy in Vietnam

May 10, 2024 | 03:25 pm PT
François Bibonne Movie director
This week, France has been invited for the first time to participate in the commemoration of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which resulted in the defeat of French troops in Vietnam and represented the country's final stand in colonial Indochina.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have changed significantly. Viewed through a "technocratic" lens, France's presence is notable as it aids Vietnam in its digital transformation, supports environmental transitions via the French Development Agency, consult anti-corruption policies and serves as a mediator between the European Union and ASEAN. Additionally, there are university exchanges facilitated by Campus France, military cooperation and Vietnam-France decentralized cooperation conference every year.

But in terms of its overall influence, France has lost its way. I note a decrease in the influence of French soft power in Vietnam. I also see glimmers of hope thanks to the actions of new independent actors.

The cultural influence of France in Vietnam is declining

With the reopening of the country in the 1990s, France actively participated in the modernization of Vietnam through cooperation programs to train new lawyers, doctors, and journalists. In 1997, the Francophonie summit was held in Hanoi. But in 2024, France is no longer among the top ten investors in the 34th largest economy in the world with a population of 100 million nicknamed the "rising star." Has France's economic downturn coincided with a retreat from the Francophonie? Let's seek the perspectives of individuals outside the diplomatic circles who are acquainted with the circumstances.

Linh K. Tran, Master of Public Policy candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: "Other nations including the U.S., U.K., China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Russia and many others also consider Vietnam a strategic partner and are competing for Vietnamese people’s attention. My parents’ generation listened to French songs when they were younger, but young Vietnamese nowadays are willing to pay millions of dong to go to American and Korean artists’ concerts, even if they are held in a different country. Against this competitive backdrop, the French soft power is very much alive but needs rejuvenation and more creative ‘bridges’ to make it more accessible, relevant, and compelling to modern Vietnamese."

Combining all learning parameters, French is the fifth most practiced foreign language after English (86%), Japanese (16%), Chinese (15%), and Korean (11%). German (3%) is almost on par with French (4%). In 2023, the French Institute of Hanoi no longer has the funds to maintain its auditorium and relocates to a villa far from the city center... A profound change that perfectly symbolizes the decline of French soft power in Vietnam.

A French professor in Vietnam recently explained to me that "if Hanoi is called 'the Paris of Southeast Asia,' it is undoubtedly because of the richness of its colonial architecture. The treatment reserved for the imposing yellow buildings with green shutters is, in my opinion, symptomatic of Vietnam's relationship with France. Sometimes restored, magnified by a park in which colossal and centuries-old trees grow, they house embassies or government institutions." This professor believes that "France still has this prestigious image, especially concerning its culture. The constant increase in the number of students enrolled in French high schools in Vietnam is proof of this. And yet, some of these beautiful mansions are left abandoned, gradually crumbling, and will eventually be replaced by new buildings."

Vietnam National Museum of History, which was built by the French as the Louis Finot Museum, in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Vietnam National Museum of History, which was built by the French as the Louis Finot Museum, in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

There is a gap between the perception of our relationship with Vietnam and reality. Here in France, some media still view the country through the lens of historians and outdated headlines: it's unfortunate that Vietnam is only brought up in conversation during war commemorations in France. This discrepancy between the reality of contemporary Vietnam and French thought fragilizes our ties.

Towards a new cultural diplomacy?

In my country, there are nearly 400,000 French people of Vietnamese origin compared to less than 10,000 French people in Vietnam. Let's consider an inverted diplomacy with action focused on understanding the country rather than the one-way expansion of French culture. One might think that France has nothing to do in Vietnam and that we are already doing enough, that times have changed: this would ignore France's cultural diversity, its diaspora, and all the economic issues that require understanding. Connecting the two countries means bringing different French populations closer and improving coexistence. A new media called "Banh Mi Media" created by Linda Nguon is doing a great job about connecting French Vietnamese back with their roots.

For over four years, I have been strengthening ties between our two countries through my documentary "Once upon a bridge in Vietnam." My grandmother is Vietnamese, and I have engaged with all the associations and actors in the Franco-Vietnamese community. I have screened my film at Harvard University, Columbia University and aired it on Vietnamese television. I organized my screenings in Vietnam with French High Schools in Hanoi and HCMC, and at BHD Vincom. We, creators from all backgrounds, continue to bring our two peoples closer together and await spontaneous support from diplomats to find funding and visibility.

In my opinion, the main ambassador of French culture in Vietnam might be Will in Vietnam, the most famous Tiktoker food reviewer with millions of followers... based in Hanoi!

*François Bibonne is a movie director and producer of the documentary "Once upon a bridge in Vietnam."

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