Carry on empire

Simon Winchester

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The French had ruled in Indochina — had owned Indochina, as colonists like to claim — ever since their capture of Saigon in 1859. Though the French were as imperially oppressive as any, they are generally seen today as having been more benign and cultured than such philistine ruffians as the Dutch and the British, and the legacy of their sovereignty — a local fondness for wine, the number of surviving boulangeries, the pidgin French still heard there in the cities from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, from Kompong Som to Hue — is still well thought of, and offers to yesterday’s “Indochine” a veneer of exotic and erotic Eastern chic. Even so, all empires, benign or brutal, inevitably fade, and the drawing down of French influence in Southeast Asia would get under way swiftly, soon after the Second World War.

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