Yesterday, I returned to North America after spending three months as a Visiting Professor at the Royal University of Law and Economics (Faculte de Droit or FD) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s oldest university and one of the country’s leading academic institutions. I am here today, thanks to the invitiation of Jean-Francois Garneau, owing to my roughly 20 years of experience in Francophone Asia, i.e., Cambodia, Lao, and Vietnam and to provide some insight on both that region as well as my own experience as a French-American (despite my terribly Anglo-Dutch sounding name and my Dutch peasant height and build), my maternal heritage is French Canadian – a fact of which I am extremely proud.

Personal Background

However, before beginning to discuss the realities of contemporary Southeast Asia, I would like to share a bit of my own personal history as a Franco-American. Here in Quebec when the term « Franco-Amercican » is utilized, thoughts immediately turn to the neighboring U.S. states of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire and – most commonly – to the Acadians of Louisiana, the only American state where the Napoleonic code remains the basis for the local legal system. And it is true, the French language remains vibrant in many of these areas, particularly in Louisiana. A close friend, a Jesuit priest with very minimal French was temporarily serving in a parish in one of the more heavily Cajun parts of the state and recalled hearing a woman upon leaving the confessional, declare to those in the line : « He doesn’t understand French well! So confess everything! »


I am here today to speak on behalf of what we might call the forgotten Franco-Americans, those of us in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northern Mississippi Valley who today still work to maintain our communal institutions and the use of the French language. I was born at Bon Secours hospital in the town of Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit. Grosse Pointe was founded in the 1800s by migrants from Quebec, and laid out with ribbon farms identical to the system along the St. Lawrence here in Quebec.  Even the names of our main roads depict well our heritage – Cadieux, Kercheval, Vernier, and Renaud.


The Catholic parish I was raised in was established by French-Canadian immigrants and still today is decorated throughout with the Fleur-de-Lis. The private school I attended, the Grosse Pointe Academy, was established by members of the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart who immigrated to serve the region’s growing French Catholic community in 1885, with a chapel modeled after La Sainte Chapelle in Paris and where French language education began in kindergarten. Spanish language, overwhelmingly dominant in American schools, was not an option. French surnames, while not as prominent as in previous years, are still par for the course – myself having grown up with many Tremblays, LeVasseurs, Ferrys, Allards, and – yes, even some Garneaus. Our local chapter of the Alliance Francaise – branches of which can be found throughout the Midwest – is incredibly active, and high school study abroad in France is par for the course for many. We even vacation in historically French communities, my parents spending their summers at their cottage in the northern Michigan town of Charlevoix (yes, we have one too).


As a border community, we are even fortunate enought to receive French-language television from neighboring Windsor, Ontario and work to maintain connections between our two communities. In Seattle, where I currently live, a decade or so ago I was at a punk rock show and was introduced by a mutual friend to the lead singer – a native francophone from Windsor whose English is spoken with a flawless American accent and who goes by his band name « Kix. » With his spiked blue mohawk and studded leather jacket, we preceded to shock quite a few folks by sitting down for a drink and reminiscing in French about our shared home and shared community. He remains a close friend and we have even built a small circle of Franco-Americans/French-Canadians who regularly socialize (i.e., watch hockey) in Scandinavian-dominated Seattle.


Nevertheless, our heritage is most apparent in our major city – Detroit, founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac whose ancestoral home, at the corner of Notre-Dame and St-Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal is, tragically, now a McDonald’s restaurant in old Montreal. Michigan’s first member of Congress, Father Gabriel Richard, was one of the few native French speakers (and the only one not from Louisiana) to serve in the American House of Representatives and his legacy is commemorated in statues, plaques, and the names of schools across our state. Even the « mother church » of our Catholic community has retained its French name – Ste. Anne de Detroit – which, if I were driving from the Detroit-Windsor tunnel I would reach by driving past Cadillac square, down Beaubien Street, turning onto St. Aubin, and finally arriving on Lafayette street. Detroit has changed enormously over the last half century but our French history has recently been re-vivified as the city has begun a rapid economic re-vitalization and the local Franco-American community take more of an interest in our heritage which the Anglo-Americans, upon their annexation of the region after the War of 1812, actively tried to « anglicize. »


France in Southeast Asia

Jean-Francois mentioned to me that most of you assume that the French speaking presence in Southeast Asia is essentially non-existant; that with the end of the French Empire so went the French language in the region. The assumption being that if one is to speak of Francophonie, the conversation is limited to North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa.


This is not in fact the case. In the same way that French Canadians in Quebec often forget your cousins in the Midwestern United States, there is much more of a French heritage, presence, and activity to build on and to develop in Indochina – or the Greater Mekong Subregion as it is now known - than is generally understood.


The French history in the region begins in the 1700s owing to the Franco-British competition for control over the lucrative Asia trade. While Britain ultimately became dominant on the continent, the French presence in Vietnam, Lao, Southwestern China, and Cambodia was deep and extensive. Until the arrival of the French in the region, Cambodia was rapidly being « eaten » by its Vietnamese and Thai neighbors, absent the establishment of a French protectorate over the kingdom it would not exist as a country today. While France’s missionary Catholicism didn’t take hold in most of the region, Buddhism remaining dominant, France laid the foundations for the legal and education systems of these countries.


The perception that the population of the region holds an inherently negative view of France and the French language is fundamentally incorrect, in that it ignores the enormous engagement with and outreach to Indochina by the French government. The resentment towards the west for the colonial period among the vast majority of the population is non-existant. Even for an American such as myself, I have not once encountered an angry word or experienced a dressing down because of my own country’s abominable actions in the region during the 1960s and 1970s – and we have quite a bit more to answer for. It is essential to note the demographic realities of the region, the majority of the region’s population was born after the Vietnam War and (particularly in Cambodia) discussing the region’s history with the west is not a common topic. One is more likely to observe intra-regional disputes/prejudices than anti-French or anti-Western views.


Moreover, one can easily observe this through the economic realities of the region today – tourism remains a mainstay of the economies of Indochina. Towns like Hoi An and Hanoi promote the beauty of the newly restored French colonial architecture. French cuisine is deeply admired. Phnom Penh is actively working to re-develop the city’s former French quarter and to promote that history to build the local tourism inustry I commented to a colleague the other day that one of the things I would most greatly miss upon my departure is the omnipresence of freshly baked baguettes and croissants. To give a bit of an extreme example – one can purchase chicken liver pate at gas stations in Phnom Penh. The legacy is strong and the legacy is positive.


French Language and Culture in Southeast Asia Today

I initially arrived in Indochina while working at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). While ADB is an anglophone institution, French consistently served as our bridge language with officials in these countries. At a meeting at the Lao Ministry of Justice when I remarked on my own insecurities, as an American, in conducting formal negotiations in French, a deputy minister joked : « Well, it’s French or Bulgarian – take your pick. The Soviets sent us to Bulgaria, we would have preferred France. »


A running joke in Phnom Penh among the expatriot community for years was if one had to interact in any way with the government, which continues to have severe governance issues, one should simply enter an office and locate the oldest member of staff who invariably would speak flawless French (much better than my own) and solve whatever problem you had immediately. These were some of the few individuals who survived the purge of French speakers carried out during the tragic years of Khmer Rouge regime where knowledge of French was sufficient cause for immediate execution, as noted in the memoirs of Father Francois Ponchaud.


Today, I am happy to report that after a brief period of decline, the use of French is once again expanding in the region, particularly in Cambodia. A daily French newspaper will soon start publishing again in Phnom Penh; the French language Lycee Renee Descartes has become one of the premier secondary schools in the country; French investment continues to grow; tourism from Francophonie states is on the rise, and, of course, one cannot forget that Her Majesty the Queen Mother is the daughter of a French father and His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni spent many years in Paris as Cambodia’s representative to UNESCO – re-building the deep, historic relationship between La Francophonie and Cambodia. The annual conference of Francophone mayors has even been held in Phnom Penh – a surprise to many who assumed the future of the country would be dominated by English and Mandarin Chinese.


Cambodia’s tragic history is well known, with the total destruction of its system of education – from primary schools through doctoral programs – a core element of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge regime. Since the restoration of Cambodian independence, it has been the states of the Francophonie – led by the deep commitment of the government of France and the Agence Française de Développement in partnership with various universities in France and Belgium – that have diligently restored and literally rebuilt the FD. The faculties of medicine and pharmacy in Cambodia also remain francophone with their own partnership agreements with universities in France. Feeling ill one day, I visited the emergency room of one of the better local hospitals. The language the doctor and I used to communicate? French.


Today at the FD, students complete undergraduate degrees in law and economics in the French langauge and the FD’s recently established graduate program in law has partnered with the Universite de Paris 8 to provide a program where Cambodian students are able to complete a degree from both institutions, gaining expertise in both Cambodian and French law. Academics in France and from Francophone univesities in Belgium regularly spend several months or a year at the FD, teaching and advising the next generation of Cambodian leaders in law and economics.


Moreover, the French language expatriot and business community is burgeoning – a francophone businessperson from Quebec can easily function in the region without needing to work in English or the local language. Even the Roman Catholic bishop of Phnom Penh, His Excellency Bishop Olivier Schmitthauesler is a French citizen, orignally from Strasbourg, as his name rather implies.


The Greater Mekong Region :

Vietnam and Opportunities for Parternship

Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing regions of the world, the Greater Mekong Subregion in particular – according to World Bank estimates, the country is expected to grow at a remarkably 7.5% per year, with similar numbers in neighboring Lao. It is one of the few parts of the world to have achieved the Millenium Development Goal targets, with Cambodia recently reaching lower middle level, a significant achievement in such a short period of time. This is visible on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh which are packed with the inevitable Toyota Camrys, SUVs, and thousands of motorbikes. One schedules one’s days around traffic conditions, depicting the speed of the development of the region. While in Vientiane, Lao – a city that fifteen years ago boasted of its hosting the country’s tallest building (the 5 story Lao Plaza Hotel) – is now teeming with freshly built skyscrapers, keeping pace with its rapid urbanization.


However, it is essential to note that these are relatively small economies – the cumulative population of both Cambodia and Lao numbers 20 million, dwarfed by neighboring Vietnam’s population of nearly 100 million with a GDP approaching $200 billion, eight times that of Lao and Cambodia combined. In my view, while engagement with the entire region is essential, Vietnam owing to its sheer size, the fact that the French presence and legacy remain the most deep, and its strong need for continued increased Foreign Direct Investment is the logical place to begin.


Unlike Lao and Cambodia, Vietnam is somewhat politically and economically isolated in the region owing to its historical (and indeed contemporary) « poor » relations with China, a country which Vietnam refers to as its «traditional enemy. » I would also note here, referring to my earlier comments, the millenium long defense of Vietnam of its territory contributes to the lack of anti-French feeling in the country. The French era of colonization was a brief moment in a country which still sees China as its main threat and advesary.


The realities of this situation present some unique opportunities, particular for business. Unlike Cambodia and Lao, which have built deep ties to China, Vietnam has remained wary and mainland investment remains relatively low in a regional context – much of the low-hanging fruit has has not been picked. At the same time, the growth of the tourism sector (and the government’s highlighting of the country’s French heritage as an aspect of its tourism promotion programs) presents myriad opportunities for parternship and investment by firms in La Francphonie. In short, Vietnam is (immediately) looking for new friends and new investors to balance a continually rising China and the historic relationship between Vietnam and the Francophonie provide a natural basis for a much broader and deeper parternship than currently exists. My own university in the United States recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the FD and my experience of the region and its needs led me to establish a think tank based in Seattle and Phnom Penh to support the training of graduate students and mid-career professionals in economic theory and research methodology. 


Extending beyond Vietnam to discuss the region as a whole, the education sector in particular is in constant need of new partners – scholarships, visiting faculty, the provisions of even the most basic materials in the rural regions of the country. The Canada-Vietnam Youth Scholarship program is a wonderful entity, an increased role for universities in Quebec would certainly be a net positive for all concerned. While several Anglophone Canadian Universities – Simon Fraser and University of Toronto – have partnered with local schools, we simply do not see anything resembling the same level of engagement with Quebec. You have been one of the most innovative countries in the world when it comes to developing distance learning. You have done that not only at the university level but at the high school and elementary levels as well, whether to link your young students to one another or to keep small schools open despite the lack of education and psychology specialists nearby. Why not create institutions and NGOs to systematically expand this know how to those areas of the world where the Francophonie would benefit most from your leadership, and you yourself would benefit as well in return.


It is estimated that the region itself – particularly Cambodia – has the highest number of local NGOs as possible, working on topics as diverse as public health, fish stock management, sustainable hydropower, and LGBT rights. All are constantly in need of partners who are willing to lend their time, expertise, and funding from overseas civil society organizations. Coordination of NGO work is a consistent problem in the Greater Mekong Region. With the French government taking the lead, improved coordination among Francophone NGOs and their expansion in the region would be of significant benefit to improving development and human security outcomes in the region. You have a religious missionary past that translates, still today, into a high rate of secular youth engagement in international development. This network is disproportionately directed towards French Africa and Latin America. Why not think of projecting it also in the direction of French Asia? One can understand that the war torn nature of the region prevented you from thinking of this region as an area of interest, when you were deploying that expertise. But times have changed – significantly - and the needs and opportunities for you in the Asian Francophonie states are enormous.


This is also a region where increased cultural exchange would be of vast benefit, in light of the region’s rapidly growing middle class and the view (very common in the region and in many other parts of Asia) that when one speaks of « high culture » from the West, the epitome of that being widely perceived as France. Building exchanges with local cultural institutions would be instrumental to the deeper integration of these states into the Francophonie and providing scholarships for local students to study abroad would be especially positive.


On the question of culture, I refer back to my previous comments concerning King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, who is himself one of the world’s leading authorities on traditional Cambodian dance and is widely respected for his and his family’s promotion of the arts in Cambodia.


There is also a need for the establishment of new business incubator programs to support the development of the regions SME sector as well as to facilitate and to assist young Quebecois seeking to build businesses in the region. Cambodia’s first business incubator was established in 2011 with some minor growth in recent years. However, yet again, it is Vietnam where the greatest number of business incubators can be found. These are essential to the growth of the economies of the region as they seek to climb the ladder of production and avoid the middle income trap. Ho Chi Minh City is the center of the country’s business incubator programs, part of the government’s « Vietnamese Silicon Valley » initiative as well as several private programs that have sought to improve Vietnamese competitiveness in the technology sector. This is an area where the Shawinigan DigiHub project could easily forge to new connections for mutual benefit. While the primary focus of existing incubators is in the tech industry, there are also programs that focus on eco-tourism and other areas that will be increasingly vital to the development of the regions of Quebec.


Finally, in a region where the decision has been taken that the Mekong River and hydropower will serve as the « Battery of the Region » in the words of the Lao government, Chinese firms overwhelmingly dominate. Some 77 new dams are already on the drawing board, providing a remarkable opportunity for mutual gains between Quebec and the region and for Quebec to share its deep expertise in the field of hydropower, the long distance transportation of electricity, grid management, etc.  Hydro-Quebec is known to have one of the most advanced research centers in the world on energy technologies, why not have it serve greater needs still, such as those of the Greater Mekong Region? As for Gaz Métropolitain, it already manages a subsidiary in Vermont that is quickly becoming one of the most transformative energy / grid management actor in the world (Green Mountain Power, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gaz Métropolitain through its financial arm Valener). Why not use a well thought through foreign relations and international development strategy to project that expertise in parts of the world that not only very much need it, but could serve the interests of Quebec and Canada by promoting the importance of French around the world.


While firms such as Bombardier already have a presence in the region, the enormous expansion in air travel will make the region a key market for firms engaged in this production. Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s main port has just recently opened a new airport and the Phnom Penh airport, completed only 15 years ago, is already expected to be completely rebuilt due to the massive increase in air travel the country is seeing. Just this week in Phnom Penh we saw the launch of a new airline, Lanmei Airlines, responding to the region’s growing demand for air travel. We observe similar realities in Lao and Vietnam, where the announcement of a new air route is a weekly occurrence.


Potential Impediments and Recommendations

While Canada maintains a small diplomatic presence in Phnom Penh (an office rather than an embassy), the Canadian community remains overwhelmingly Anglophone and very few Quebec-oriented initiatives, although there are a few restaurants and guesthouses run by or employing Quebecois. Full-scale Canadian embassies exist in Vietnam (that is : in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) but – despite the shared French heritage of Vietnam, Lao, and Cambodia – it is the Canadian ambassador to Thailand who is officially designated to represent Canadian interests in Cambodia. In my view, the establishment of a Canadian Cultural Center and a permanent full time embassy in Phnom Penh would be of great benefit. The development (at the very least) of a clear « action plan » needs to be completed as quickly as possible. This action plan should examine both (i) how Canada will promote its interests and (ii) how Canada will build on Quebec’s historically unique cultural connections to the region (the Francophonie aspect). In other words, it’s time to move beyond the perception in the region that « Canada means Vancouver and Toronto. » This is not merely detrimental to Quebec, but detrimental to Canada as a whole in a region where the French dimension remains a powerful element of development and relationship building.


I will close on something of an awkward but important note – the question of « Brand Quebec. » And perhaps this is another one of those topics where, because I am an American and not a Quebecker, individuals feel more comfortable sharing their views with me than with someone from Quebec (my name helps me to act a bit incognito). There exists something of a mis-perception of Quebec in Asia, including Indochina. Many mistakenly believe that Quebec is « not really » a French speaking nation. Rather, owing to the uniqueness of Quebecois French, the geographic distances from France, and the perceived isolation of the francophone community here (buried in a sea of Anglophones) there exists a view that Quebec’s relationship to the French language and France is more similar to that of South Africa’s Afrikaans speakers to the Netherlands, i.e. a fundamentally different, unique, and isolated community. In my view it is vital to actively combat that perception and to highlight that, yes, Quebec is distinct but Quebec is French. Quebecois is French. Quebecois society is French.


I know you needed to change that view in the 1960s, if only to assert your difference against the arrogance of Metropolitan French, just as we, Americans, had to assert the autonomy of our culture against British Metropolitan culture. But without ever going back to the situation that prevailed before the 1960s, I think you should appreciate the benefit of not merely cultivating your difference but promoting yourself as equally French as the French from France. Your role, in fact, should be to help both France and all the other French speaking nations of the world to increasingly view themselves as part of a common body, that of the Francophonie, with a common brand shared by all. That brand would build on the common French heritage, on the commonly shared desire to be proud of that heritage and to want to share it with the rest of the world. But that brand would also be about promoting diversity within the French identity, helping France move away from its imperialist former self just as much as helping all other countries move away from unnecessarily persisting anti-colonialist resentment.


Changing this view is particularly vital for the growing Asian tourism industry, particularly eco-tourism, which could serve as a new basis for the economic development of Quebec’s regions. When Asian tourists visit the United States, New York is generally their first stop. Making clear through marketing the fact that Quebec – a unique, francophone society – is only a train ride away could serve to significantly support the growth of the tourism industry in Quebec : « Visiting New York? Quebec is only a train ride away – come north! Experience a bit of France and French culture after seeing the Big Apple. »


The creation of vibrant centers of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian culture in Montreal (or any one of your regions) would also be useful. The same people who come to New York could thus be enticed to come north not merely for the French culture of Quebec, but for that aspect of the French culture in North America that is theirs and theirs alone (French North American Vietnamese, French North American Cambodians, French North American Laotians). You have used common religious roots in the past to draw huge crowds of American Catholics to your pilgrimage sites, why not do it also with culture in general and Francophonie in particular.