Wed, Jun 11, 2008 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: 'Little Vietnam' in rural France faces demolition


French refugees who left Vietnam after the 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu walk in the refugee camp of Sainte Livrade sur Lot in southern France last Wednesday.


The days are numbered for a Little Vietnam on the banks of a river in southwestern France that for 50 years has housed widows and children of French soldiers who died in Indochina. After half a century of neglect by the French state, the Center for the Reception of the French of Indochina is to be demolished and its residents rehoused.

The camp is a former explosives factory reopened in 1956 to house 1,160 refugees from France’s colonial adventure in Southeast Asia during which Paris ruled what are today Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from the latter part of the 19th century until the mid-1950s.

The camp’s school, hospital and administrative offices have long been closed, but there are still 120 families living here in shabby shacks. Only two grocery stores, a temple and a church still function.

The residents are a mix of pensioners, who grew up here and have now returned after a lifetime in the wider world, old women who never left the camp, and third or fourth generation members of this forgotten community.

“The war in Indochina was so unpopular that the state didn’t want to put much money into our lodgings,” said Francine Gerlach, 60, the daughter of a French soldier she never met and a north Vietnamese woman, who lived in the center until her mother’s death in 1972.

Many of the residents remember their arrival in the muddy camp, where they were forbidden to speak Vietnamese, had to sleep on military camp beds and prohibited from owning bicycles or cars.

They arrived with France still smarting from its catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, a 57-day clash in the spring of 1954 that was the turning point in Paris’ struggle to preserve its colonial status in Indochina.

The Vietnamese claimed victory, in what is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest battles, though both sides sustained massive losses, together losing more than 10,000 soldiers in the fight.

Set on the banks of the Lot river, half way between Toulouse and Bordeaux, the center is one of two such camps that survive in France, the other being in Noyant d’Allier in the center of the country.

The town hall’s plan is to raze the camp and build social housing on the grounds. Planning permission has been granted and work is set to begin in September.

Emile Lejeune, 88, the son of a French magistrate and a Vietnamese princess, said he was surprised by the plans to demolish the camp.

“It would have been a good plan 40 years ago, but to start worrying about us know is a little anachronistic. We’ve been here for 50 years, why bother us now?” he asked.

Raymond Luco, who arrived here when he was 15, said: “This project comes 40 years too late or 10 years too early, because the old women still alive will never get used to the change.”

As he spoke he pointed towards a stooped old woman taking a few steps in front of her shack, a Vietnamese conical hat on her head.

Sainte-Livrade Mayor Claire Pasut has promised to take into account the customs of the people in the camp.

“Urban and social studies will be undertaken so that the new housing will be adapted with, for example, a place where they can worship their ancestors,” she said.

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