"Historical Ties" Underpin French Aid
Phnom Penh Post
Friday, 26 February 1993
By Nate Thayer
When one turns on the television in Phnom Penh these days, one can be treated to French movies and game shows beamed from Paris. Radio France International now broadcasts 24 hours a day here, with a new studio and transmitter, and a new French language newspaper hit the streets last week.
Any morning of the week hundreds of people throng outside Alliance Francaise-one of the biggest in the world-as they take advantage of friendship prices to promote French language and culture.
But on the back streets of Phnom Penh, the hundreds of private language schools that have popped up are almost all teaching English, and of the more than 100 billboards now lining the road to the capital from the airport, only five are in French. It is a sign of a battle for cultural influence that has France fighting against a strong-some say inevitable-tide of Asian influence that most think will dominate the country in the post-war period.
When French President Francois Mitterand arrived in Phnom Penh on 11 February with a delegation of 270, it was a culmination of not-so-subtle French efforts in recent months to position itself to have dominant influence when Cambodia emerges with a new government after U.N.-sponsored elections.
Mitterand's visit was the first of a Western head of state since Charles De Gaulle in 1966, and came on the heels of a steady stream of high level French visitors since the signing of the Paris accords, including the foreign minister and the defence minister.
The French push in Cambodia has far exceeded efforts of any other Western power, and has come up against criticism by some for subordinating long-term Cambodian interests in order to promote French national interests in Cambodia.
The Paris Peace Accords-of which France is cosponsor with Indonesia-calls for foreign countries to deal only with the SNC-the interim body which groups the four former warring factions to work with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) until a new government is formed after elections later in 1993.
But France has begun a number of bilateral arrangements with the current authorities in Phnom Penh. In January, more than 700 municipal officials from Phnom Penh gathered for a conference sponsored by Phnom Penh's sister city, Paris, on urban planning and development. France has had officials giving training and advice to the Phnom Penh authorities police force since last year. And France has pledged more than 20 million Francs for refurbishing the badly dilapidated Phnom Penh water and electricity systems.
Senior Cambodian sources say that France has offered to provide major military assistance to the new government that emerges from U.N.-sponsored elections. "They said just do what you need to do to form a new government and we are prepared to give you whatever you need," said one senior official. Three separate senior French military delegations have visited Phnom Penh since last fall, which include private meetings with leaders of the factions likely to assume power in a new government.
France's approach to bypass the letter of the terms of the peace agreement by dealing officially with the individual factions has caused friction with other permanent five member of the U.N. security council. "The other governments are abiding by the agreement which say bilateral agreements have to go through the SNC," said one senior UNTAC official, "but the fact is Cambodia needs the help and some of it is just sour grapes from the Anglos."
The French friendly relations with the authorities of the Vietnamese installed State of Cambodia regime has drawn a constant stream of Khmer Rouge vitriol in recent months, with accusations of a French plot to recolonize Cambodia in conjunction with the Vietnamese.
Indeed France has pledged major funding for recreating Cambodia's badly dilapidated educational and medical structures, and those that complain are offering little alternatives. French officials contend that their aid is going for the rebuilding of the country and will benefit whatever new government comes into power. "The international community has requested help. There is no long term scheme for development, people are thinking of short term benefits that have no benefit for Cambodia with the money leaving the country. In fact, we have no real economic interest in Cambodia. We want to be a partner in knowledge, not buying the country," said one French diplomat here.
But critics say that the French assistance to rebuilding the education structure could reinforce Cambodia's isolation, by France's insistence that any French aid be contingent on instruction being in French language.
While France has launched a multi-pronged approach in Cambodia that includes high profile political delegations and economic assistance, all their efforts are dwarfed by a major push of language and culture, which they see as an instrument of promoting and ensuring French influence in the region.
The Alliance Francaise in Phnom Penh has more than 8,000 students, far exceeding any English language institutions in the country. According to French government briefing papers, another 7,000 Cambodian students are studying French from four to 14 hours a week. Cambodia was invited to attend the last summit on Francophone countries, and the secretary of state for International Cultural Relations and Franco-phonie has visited Cambodia twice in recent months. The Ministry of Cooperation-the French cultural and other development arm, which previously was limited mainly to Africa and never before in Asia, has pledged 40 million Francs to Cambodia this year.
France has pledged a minimum of 150 million Francs for 1993, and French sources say that will increase significantly in coming months. Sixty-five million Francs is destined to rebuilding Cambodia's health sector , with a concentration on training at the Faculty of Medicine in Phnom Penh. The other targets include the Faculties of Economics, Law, the Technical institute, Institute of Agriculture, and the creation of a school to train civil servants.
Efforts to attract French business have not taken off, with limited investment in banking, oil exploration, construction, and hotels, and rebuilding Cambodia's formerly French run rubber plantations, among other areas. When Foreign Minister Roland Dumas visited Phnom Penh in November 1991 with more than 100 top French businessmen, it resulted in few major French investments, diplomats say. French Embassy sources say that France is Cambodia's 5th largest partner for imports, and 16th for exports from Cambodia. The Banque Indosuez has recently opened a branch in Phnom Penh.
For Cambodia, "there is no more strategic value or real economic value," said one senior UNTAC official, "there is no serious interest here for the big powers. It is mainly greasing the road to Vietnam." This may be why no other major economic power has seriously set the stage for a big political or economic push here. But for France it is different set of considerations.
France continues to view Indochina as the jewel of the French empire, and much of their efforts seem to reflect a sentimental fondness of the grandeur of yesteryear. The three former French colonies here are seen, according to diplomats, as France's only chance to maintain a foothold in Asia, where they have failed to penetrate significantly, other major areas, such as Japan or China.
During the drawing up of the terms for implementation of the peace agreement at U.N. headquarters in New York in the fall of 1991, France became embroiled in a contentious debate with other architect countries of the peace agreement with their demand that French be the official language of the U.N. operation in Cambodia. While settling for dual official languages of English and French, the issue has continued to be a source of rancor. The French Ambassador to Phnom Penh stormed out of a U.N.-sponsored Human Rights conference in December after the program was not presented in French, on top of a planned program of Khmer and English. French diplomatic sources say that the French Ambassador has sent a memo to embassy staff ordering them to refrain from speaking English when possible. "The situation of French in Cambodia calls for neither triumphalism nor defeatism," declared a recent French briefing paper on Cambodia, "situated primarily in an anglophone and sinophone region, Cambodia has, more than all other countries in Asia, maintained it's attachment to French language and culture."
Aside from the high profile television, radio, and language operations, the battlefields are drawn in an increasingly contentious debate over the higher education systems in Cambodia.
After the Khmer Rouge period, when education was abolished, Cambodia entered into more than a decade of Soviet influence, where a rudimentary higher education system was created, with Russian language courses taught in the universities. Several thousand students studied in Phnom Penh or the former Soviet Union. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia abruptly halted it's aid programs, which included courses taught mainly in Russian language by Russian teachers. Hundreds of students at Phnom Penh University and the other faculties here, many who devoted years of their youth to the mastering of Russian, were left stranded with useless language skills and interrupted instruction.
Since early 1992, France has begun a major push to take control of the institutions of higher learning in Phnom Penh, offering assistance of teachers, textbooks, and curriculum development for the faculties of law, medicine, economics, as well as Phnom Penh University. But French assistance is largely contingent on instruction being limited to French language, causing many to qustion whether France has Cambodia's best interests at heart.
At the Faculties of Medicine and Economics, French assistance is contingent on students studying 14 hours a week of French language. At the law school, some U.N. officials claim that the French have blocked other offers of law courses because instruction would be in English. And aid for the resumption of courses at the Khmer-Soviet Technical Institute has been held up because some agencies are balking at French demands that if they fund the courses, which are to replace the halted Soviet aid, it must be contingent on "no English language curriculum."
"French is easier than Russian, but now 99% of the people in Phnom Penh speak English," says Douch Samedy, a student at the Technical Institute. "Only English will make it easier to find a job. I am worried about finding a job, but to study I must speak French."
But the French response is simple. "We are renovating building, providing teachers-the full project from a to z. We are not going to pay for everything in order for the courses to be taught in English. It will be development as the French do it," said one French diplomat.
Many Cambodians fear that higher education being limited to French will seriously impede the ability of Cambodia to reintegrate with regional and world economic powers who are poised to resume dealings with Cambodia once a new government is formed later this year. "I studied French for 22 years and I can't even by a bowl of noodles in Thailand," says one Cambodian who works for the U.N. here. Others remember being reprimanded as a child for speaking their native Khmer language during school hours. French primary and secondary school curriculum was taught in French before 1970.
Critics of the French aid programs say that Cambodia's natural and inevitable commercial and political partners in coming years will be dominated by ASEAN, Japan, and other Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"Learning in French instead of English is going to do Cambodians about as much good as Russian did them," said one university faculty member. "The French say that Cambodia has entered the francophone community, but the region is anglophone, and the people they are going to have to deal with will speak English."
But observers here say that the French efforts to bring Cambodia into the community of franco-phone nations is destined to fail because the inevitable trends point toward ASEAN and Japan dominating the region in the post war period.
"The most France can hope for is a French flavor here," said one Cambodian official. "But when we need money, where are the anglo saxons. In the end, the French efforts are destined to fail. It is based on an illusion that they can recreate the past."
"ASEAN and Japan are going to swamp this place," said one western observer, "And then, no matter how much money they put in, the French language is history. It will be the end of the game."