King Norodom Sihanouk (R) speaks with French Honorary Governor François-Marius Beaudoin in Phnom Penh in 1952. Photograph: AFP
When the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk entertained French ambassadors, leaders and friends, he would proudly tell each: “I am the world’s greatest Francophone leader.”
It was a two-way street. Such was the close nature of the relationship that France once appointed an ambassador to Cambodia with a degree in literature, not diplomacy – a gesture aimed to please a head of state enamoured with French literature.
Sihanouk may have wanted an independent Cambodia, but according to his biographer, Julio Jeldres, he always intended to make the most of the country’s French connection.
“His late Majesty made it quite clear that he did not want a complete break with France and that he would welcome French assistance, investment and some training for the small Cambodian Army. He had a deep fondness for French literature, language, culture and cuisine and before 1970, he took every year a holiday (and medical check up) in France,” Jeldres wrote in an email this month.
While Sihanouk’s death does not represent any sudden departure in French-Cambodian relations, it comes amid the gradual fading of France’s culture and influence in its former protectorate.
Sihanouk was part of a generation of Cambodians who grew up at a time when France considered Cambodia, in the words of a spokesman for the French Council of Ministers in 1970, “an island of French culture in the Far East”.
Today, that generation is rapidly ageing. Many have died. Colonial buildings are slowly being destroyed, and France’s political and financial involvement is now focused elsewhere – limited by the country’s own economic and domestic woes.
Whether the French legacy will remain intact in the Kingdom – and to what extent – depends on one’s viewpoint.
But Sihanouk’s cousin, friend and former adviser Prince Sisowath Thomico says that in contemporary Cambodia, Sihanouk was greatly saddened by the loss of French culture.
“He wished the French would have more influence, and he really regretted the waning – the vanishing of the French influence in Cambodia and the region.”
After 14 years of schooling, Chea Vannath knew plenty about France.
Like hundreds of thousands of her peers, she had never visited the country, but in the classrooms of Phnom Penh, she spoke the language, read the literature and practiced the culture.
“We learned about the daily life of French people in France,” says Vannath, who today is a highly respected local political analyst.
“As I remember [in our textbooks], there was one character, Monsieur Maugar, who covered all the topics of daily life: transportation, communication, lunch, breakfast, prayers, vegetables, language, literature, law – everything.”
Vannath started school in 1956, three years after Cambodia’s independence from the French protectorate that had been in place for almost a century.
The education boom that followed independence was largely modeled on the French system, and many schools taught classes either entirely in French or in a mixture of French and Khmer.
Indeed, until the 1970s, the Cambodian government communicated in French, street signs were written in French, and hundreds of students were sent to France on scholarships.
Vannath said she never questioned why she was learning so much about a country on the other side of the world when she knew so little of Cambodia’s neighbors, such as Thailand or Vietnam.
“France never felt that far away, because when we were born, we saw the white skin and the sharp nose already. So it just came naturally... Knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or without intention, we just went by both cultures, both languages.“
Today, says 70-year-old Vannath, there aren’t many like her left.
“When you find somebody now that is still able to speak French, you feel that ‘Oh! This person is from the educated, French generation’... But that generation has become an endangered species.”
Many French-speaking Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and in the 1980s, the language – along with English – was outlawed from schools and universities, where it was replaced with communist-bloc languages, including Russian and Vietnamese.
There are still those like Vannath – elegant, elderly Khmers who relish the chance to practice a language they once knew so well. But journalist Frédéric Amat, a French expatriate who has lived in Cambodia since 1995, says that generation will soon be gone.
“Old people who had a French education have a lot of respect for French culture and for France, but that is going to be over soon, because that generation is dying out,” he says.
The future may lie with the young, but Amat says that since the 1990s, despite playing a leading role in redeveloping Cambodia, France has failed to reassert its cultural presence.
“The Cambodians have their own culture, and I don’t think the French have any influence anymore; now it’s the Americans, the English culture, that pervades,” he says.
Fifty-seven-year-old Chin Setha, a Khmer-language teacher, says the arrival of hundreds of foreigners here with the UNTAC mission in the early 1990s had a huge influence.
“At that time, as I remember, almost no Cambodians spoke English. Now, everyone – not all – but many Cambodians can speak English. Many, many Cambodians learn English very fast, even the kids.”
As the foreigners continue to pour in, whether as tourists, development workers, or business people, on the streets of Phnom Penh and other cities, English has become the lingua franca.
In Cambodian schools, French has largely made way for English.
Today, Cambodia’s two official French educational institutions are the Lycée René Descartes, a school of some 800 students aged three to 18, and the Institut Français du Cambodge.
While the IFC’s enrolments declined in the 1990s and early 2000s, they have since steadied at about 10,000 students a year.
In a statement to the Post, the institute said it remains pragmatic about its role here.
“A constant concern of the IFC is adapting what it offers to match changing local needs. The gradual opening up of Cambodia to other partners and its entry into ASEAN have guided the choice of the public differently.”
Still, it goes on. French remains the language of choice for many educated Cambodians.
“To speak French in Cambodia today, and the world, represents a real choice and the opportunity to differentiate,” the institute said. “Multilingualism in the region is inescapable: trilingualism is a minimum in Cambodia. Our audiences have understood.”
When questioned by the Post, Cambodia’s French institutions were decidedly defensive about their role here.
Asked at a recent press conference about France’s relevance in Cambodia, Ambassador Serge Mostura replied:
“It is important for the Cambodian side, because I think that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen said that the presence of France, of French language, of French culture, or French training courses here in Cambodia constitute an advantage for Cambodia in ASEAN. On the side of France, we have long-standing relations with Cambodia in many regards, if not all – political, cultural and economic.”
But Prince Thomico, who was himself French-educated and lived in France for 40 years, was happy to offer a blunt assessment.
“There is no more French influence in Cambodia. The French try to keep a presence through the French institute, but it’s just the way to spread the French culture and to preserve French interests.”
Despite this, there is a new, albeit smaller, generation bridging the gap across continents: young Cambodian-French who have made their way back to the motherland.
Opposite the bustling Boeung Keng Kang market, Arya Vong Kim has been running her hairdressing business since 2011.
Born in Pailin province, she escaped war-torn Cambodia as an infant in1975 and grew up a poor refugee in Lyon.
Now 40, she returned to Cambodia in 2009 to open the country’s first L’Oréal salon.
“I thought it would be better to come back to Cambodia, because I can help to develop my country, the economy, to create the jobs for the youth, and to give knowledge to hairdressers and beauticians.”
Business, she says, is good, although her Khmer language needs improving – French is her native tongue.
“I consider myself to be Cambodian, but I’m very happy that I grew up in France, because I think my ideas, my eyes are different... In Cambodia, we can develop. In Europe, now it’s saturation for the economy. In France, it’s very hard now. But in Cambodia, we can help to give a new life.”
For her, the future is in Asia, but the history remains important.
“We are influenced by what the French have given us. Like the fashion, the food, the beauty products, they stay – and the values.”
On the other side of town, just behind Hotel Le Royal, French-Cambodian Satra Hour, 44, runs Stella Restaurant with his French-Vietnamese wife.
He left for France in 1984 after losing 14 family members to the Khmer Rouge and spending two years in a Thai refugee camp.
Hour lived in Paris for the next 26 years and, like Arya, returned to Cambodia because he saw the development potential, and also because he is “Khmer at heart”.
“I feel like I’m at the junction between the old and the new generations. The old French-speaking people are dying, and these kinds of things cannot be easily reproduced. It makes me sad to realise that this time is over, but what can I do, right?”
While Hour is reluctant to describe himself as a crusader for French culture or cuisine, he does consider himself to be of both nationalities.
“I’m a bit confused about the future and my role in it, but I hope to play some part in keeping French culture alive here.”
The French Embassy estimates that there are about 5,000 French expatriates living in Cambodia, while Cambodians living in France number 150,000, and approximately 260 Cambodians study in France each year.
Vannath remains hopeful that while the French presence in Cambodia is small, it will not disappear altogether, because, she says, the relationship goes beyond politics.
“I think a lot of Cambodian people who are living in France have families in both worlds, Cambodian and French. So the French culture will remain. It’s smaller now, it’s small but it’s significant: significant value, significant identity,” Vannath says.
In this, French Ambassador Mostura agrees.
“The relationship between France and Cambodia goes way back, and this relationship is built on friendship between two peoples and two countries. It does not depend on particular people, even if those people are men of state. So we do regret the passing of his majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, but this relationship between France and Cambodia will continue.”
But in spite of such proclamations, many believe Sihanouk’s death does herald a new era.
“Hun Sen is not a Francophile,” points out historian David Chandler. “He associates French with old elite and with the royal family. Plenty of French people will still live in Cambodia. The French aid program will continue, and French work at Angkor has been invaluable. But if all the French left Cambodia tomorrow, Hun Sen wouldn’t express the slightest regret.”
2013 marks 60 years since Norodom Sihanouk led his country out of the protection of French rule and into its own bittersweet future.
Elements of French colonial Indochina are still here – in the buildings of Battambang and Kampot, in the wide boulevards of Phnom Penh, in French restaurants and baguette vendors and the incorporation of French words – like “remorque” – into the Khmer language.
And for Vannath, French Cambodia remains as important as ever.
“Because it’s small, it’s become more precious, more valuable. It’s smaller, but small is beautiful.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Slattery at [email protected]