How Vietnam Wants to Make France Pay

How are Vietnamese veterans forcing France to face up to its colonial debts?

March 9, 2002

How are Vietnamese veterans forcing France to face up to its colonial debts?

You see, once upon a time, quite a few Vietnamese served in the French Colonial Army — before and during World War II, and in subsequent military episodes. Many of these veterans were not paid a French Army pension at all.

And even those who were paid a pension received only the ‘Colonial Army’ pension of roughly $500 a year. This compares to the $6,000 a year pension paid to veterans of the mainland French Army.

Now, with the backing of the Vietnamese government, these soldiers are demanding the full pension.

The pension push began three years ago, when a Colonial Army veteran from Senegal, who served France loyally from 1937 to 1959, brought a lawsuit in the Paris courts that claimed he was the victim of racial discrimination. White-skinned veterans of the French Army were paid more than brown, black or yellow-skinned veterans of the Colonial Army.

In late 2001, he won his case. The court found that the veteran from Senegal was right, possible moved by the fact that his military record including fighting for General de Gaulle’s Free French against the Nazis in World War II. The court ruled that there should be no discrimination between the veterans — whether they served in the colonial or in the metropolitan Army of France.

An alert Vietnamese diplomat in Paris got wind of the ruling — and cabled back to Hanoi that there was an opportunity here for Vietnam’s veterans. The Vietnamese government appealed over the press and radio for the elderly veterans to file their claims through the Vietnamese foreign ministry.

Now, the real claims are starting to roll in. So far, over 300 vets with over 15 years of service have registered their cases. Another 1,200-plus with ten years service have also filed. That is why Hanoi’s new growth industry is the lawsuit.

Algeria and Morocco, as well as the rest of France’s former colonial empire, are also getting into the act.

What worries the French is not the likely annual pension payout of more than $100 million. Rather, what truly concerns the French Treasury is the prospect of having to pay interest on all those back-dated debts.