'Little Vietnam' in France faces demolition
Beatrice Le Bohec reports as the Centre for the Reception of the French of Indochina is to be demolished.
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 Centre for the
Reception of the French of Indochina, or CAFI as it is is known by its
initials, 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, its hospital and its administrative offices have long since 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 CAFI until her mother's death in 1972.
'The project came 40 years too late'
Many of the residents remember their arrival in the muddy camp, where it
was forbidden to speak Vietnamese, where they had to sleep on military camp beds, and where they were forbidden to own 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, CAFI is one of two such camps that survive in France, the other being in Noyant d'Allier in the centre 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.
The mayor of Sainte-Livrade, Claire Pasut, promises to 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.
(AFP - Expatica 2008)
Photos courtesy of: rapatries-vietnam.org/
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