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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."