Cambodians find fault with French assault

May 12, 1995

Some 250 Cambodian students demonstrated and burned tyres last week in protest at the use of French as the teaching medium at Phnom Penh's Institute of Technology.

Student leaders said the protest movement would continue, with a symbolic burning of the French flag "if no progress has been made" on their demand for teaching in English.

Student leaders were received by first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and talks are under way between French officials and Cambodian authorities, anxious not to jeopardise French aid for higher education.

The unrest followed comments in Paris by the French ambassador to Phnom Penh, who was quoted in French media as acknowledging that Cambodia is "not francophone".

Other observers say the ambassador was only stating the obvious in response to French culture minister Jacques Toubon, who complained that efforts to reintroduce French to Cambodia were not having enough impact.

Mr Toubon called in vain on French foreign minister Alain Juppe to enact sanctions against the ambassador.

This is not the first time that Cambodian students have demonstrated against their French-language education. More than 1,000 took to the streets in 1993 to demand English-language courses.

At the time, Michel Guillou, the head of Aupelf-Uref, the francophone agency for higher education and research which funds the institute, suggested that the protest movement was instigated by the CIA in order to counter French influence in the region.

However, Cambodian undergraduates clearly do fear their job prospects in English-speaking Asia will be severely hampered without English.

France is the country's major provider of aid for higher education and is the second biggest overall donor to Cambodia after Japan.

French support for the rebuilding of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos is aimed at recreating a francophone zone in South-east Asia of the type which formerly existed in French Indochina.

Its support for higher education, which includes funding, teachers, textbooks and equipment, comes with the proviso that French be the main or sole teaching language.

As no English-speaking nation is providing academic staff or text books to Cambodia, little English teaching is available anyway.

The French argue that they are rebuilding Cambodia's higher education system virtually single-handed and are even introducing English lessons.

"France entirely renovated and equipped the Institute of Technology and it introduced the teaching of English as a foreign language," said Benoit Bardet at the Aupelf Paris office.

The lack of anglophone aid means that for the moment at least, the student protesters are demanding the impossible when they call for English-based courses. Previously, the institute, which trains an elite corps of engineers for Cambodia, taught in Russian and Khmer.

Now, it teachers in Khmer and French, with total immersion French language learning in the first and second years. The same approach it taken in the university's faculties of law, medicine and economics.

French co-operation in Cambodia only got off the ground after Vietnam's withdrawal and so students beginning their higher education have at best had only a couple of years of French teaching at school.

Moreover, many returnees from refugee camps in Thailand or from Canada or Australia had picked up English.

Cambodia is increasingly opening up to the region and its anglophone regional association ASEAN.

Only the decimated generation of 50-plus educated Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge years are French-speakers.

Recently, Aupelf-Uref organised a regional conference attended by some 400 French businesses.

It hoped this would encourage undergraduates to have more faith in their francophone job prospects. But so far, very few French firms have set up in Cambodia.

The Cambodians have a joke about "la francophonie". It goes "What do France and Cambodia have in common? Both have English as their first foreign language".

As one Aupelf-Uref official said: "It is David against Goliath."

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