In Vietnam, French Consul Seeking To ‘Reinforce The Links’
When Vietnamese doctor Duong Quang Trung traveled to France to be trained in advanced medicine in the 1990s—one of the first of what would become thousands of French-trained Vietnamese doctors—he forged a strong rapport with a French doctor Alain Carpentier and was struck with a bold idea.
Why not bring Carpentier directly to Vietnam?
The partnership had already yielded tremendous results. According to French Consul General Vincent Floriani, in the past few years alone nearly 3,000 Vietnamese doctors have completed the French physician training but this reverse exchange would create a valuable new health asset in Vietnam. The two physicians partnered to created The Heart Institute in 1992, a medical organization that offers cardiac surgery services with support from France’s national health system. To date, it’s been a critical resource for over 4,300 young patients, many of them impoverished.
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“These sorts of initiatives are great”, Floriani said discussing the Heart Institute. The French state’s position is that there ought to be more of these types of projects. Consequently, Floriani said he sees his role, as the lead representative for France’s presence in Saigon, as one of finding and brokering new partnerships. “The job of the diplomat is to prepare the ground to make that possible”.
A Real French Education in Vietnam
Nearly six centuries have passed since France ruled Vietnam as a colonial power, but the European state remains actively involved in a wealth of initiatives in Vietnam, including education and language acquisition on top of healthcare.
From supporting local schools to cooperating with French education organizations in Ho Chi Minh City, the French government has remained an active part of Vietnam’s growth.
Today, there are 13,000 pupils who are studying in schools teaching French curriculums, from the doctoral level all the way down to preschool. These schools report to a governmental body that ensures compliance with French education standards.
There are a total of five primary schools that currently offer this type of French education. Two secondary schools, Lycee Francais International Marguerite Duras in Ho Chi Minh City and Lycee Francais Yersin, are offering pupils the chance to continue their education in an educational environment that accords with French education standards. And these schools “are about a third of what [students] would pay at other international schools,” Floriani said.
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Floriani said the overwhelming number of students in schools offering French education are expatriates—the French national population in Vietnam has steadily grown by between 15 and 20 percent the last few years—but “it’s something I want to improve,” he said.
In the Saigon high school, around 15 percent of the student body is Vietnamese, Floriani said. In Hanoi, he said about 40 percent of the students are part of the local population. Floriani said bringing more Vietnamese representation in to the student bodies of both would increase cultural exchange and enhance the relationship France has with an important partners.
An Unwavering Partnership
France’s continued involvement has at times put it at odds with another prominent partner: the U.S.
The relationship was chronicled in depth by Henrich Dahm, a researcher for the Institute of Asian Affairs, in his book “French and Japanese Economic Relations with Vietnam Since 1975”.
After the end of the American War in Vietnam in 1975, the U.S. and Vietnam maintained no economic relations. A trade embargo created in 1964 on all trade activities was extended until Bill Clinton took the office of U.S. president. Citing Hanoi’s help in locating military personnel that were still missing in action, he ordered the lifting of the trade embargo in 1994. Yet vestiges of the embargo remained through the current era. It was only in 2016 that former U.S. president Barack Obama lifted the ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam.
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Through the freeze and subsequent thaw, a number of countries including France remained active partners with Vietnam in fostering international cooperation.
Even after the invasion of Cambodia when international partners lobbed criticism against Vietnamese leadership in 1975, Dahm writes that France remained committed to keeping the trade and diplomatic relationship active. It used its continued influence to bring an end to fighting between Cambodia factions and Vietnamese forces through an accord signed in Paris in 1989.
Long before Clinton chose to lift the U.S. trade embargo, France had been advocating for the integration of Vietnam into the global financial community. The U.S. consistently blocked France in their efforts at the International Monetary Fund, voting against measures that would bring economic relief to the region like refinancing the nation’s debt.
With Clinton’s decision to lift the trade embargo, France was able to move forward leading a plan to refinance the nation’s US$140 million debt. France led an 11-nation group that repaid about half the loan in Vietnam’s stead and won the country a loan with better terms.
According to Dahm, French aid to Vietnam has made it a top donor with aid concentrated in education, cultural enrichment, communication, water supply, sanitation, transportation, energy, economic management and human resources to name a few critical resources..
In 1993 when the doctor training program was conceived, French grant aid to Vietnam was about US$44 million, an increase of US$10 million from two years prior and nearly US$30 million from four years prior.
In return for their work, Dahm’s study found that French companies benefit from the aid, which is tied to large purchases of French goods and services. In return, the Vietnamese government has welcomed French companies seeking support for business deals in the country.
The work building connections continues today. In March, the French education ministry kicked off a five-day intensive French language course in Ho Chi Minh City for adult students. Students attending represented 12 countries in the Asia region.
The event is part of a broader celebration of formal relations between Vietnam and France. This year marks 45 years since leaders formalized diplomatic cooperation between the two nations.
Developing French Fluency
French assistance in Vietnam has included cultural exports like newspapers and films, as well as language training. In 1994, a cultural appreciation and language program aimed at young Vietnamese students began. It has since worked to develop a fluency in French sufficient to study in the University of Science and Technology in Hanoi, an institution jointly run by Vietnamese and French governments, other university-level programs taught in French or for some students the opportunity to study in France itself.
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Currently, some of that work is continuing with the Institut d'Échanges Culturels avec la France (“Institute of Cultural Exchanges with France”), which works with Saigon and Hanoi’s local Vietnamese population to foster French cultural awareness and train them in the language. One of the necessities for French citizenship is a minimum French language requirement. When the French Consulate is approached by Vietnamese interested in getting French citizenship or seeking to study in France but lacking the language requirement, Floriani said he directs them to the Institute.
The French state has also for years cultivated a presence in Vietnam. The partnership has yielded dividends for not only the country itself, but also neighboring nations.
In 1993, a formal partnership between France and Vietnam was created to bring working Vietnamese doctors to France to specialize in a range of disciplines including surgery, pediatrics and anesthesiology. Floriani said some of the French-trained Vietnamese doctors went on to work with Cambodian doctors to share their skills with their regional neighbor.
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“Vietnamese have this expertise to be able to provide training,” Floriani said.
The work the French have done in Vietnam “helps … promote cooperation,” Floriani said. That’s why he sees his mission in part as increasing participation from both parties, more Vietnamese students in the French schools, greater numbers of Vietnamese students studying in France.
“Basically, this is the job of any diplomat. Their job is to reinforce the links,” Floriani said.
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