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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - "Historical Ties" Underpin French Aid

"Historical Ties" Underpin French Aid

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."

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