Cambodia retains links to French past


Cambodia, Kampot Province, Bokor National Park, a church dating of the French colonial times

PHNOM PENH - In the shade of the Cambodian capital&39;s bustling central market, 58-year-old Hai Neang hawks hot, fresh baguettes.

But while ham and cheese is the quintessential filling for a baguette in France, the sandwich at this city market is a mix of influences - much like the country itself - with pork and spiced papaya the preferred accompaniment.

Not that Hai Neang is aware of the humble baguette&39;s origins. She looks bemused when asked if she knows it is iconic French fare, and one of her customers is positively annoyed by the question, retorting: "It&39;s Khmer, not French."

The Khmer name for the bread, "pan," derives from the French word "pain," while the market building is a landmark piece of art deco architecture, with a vibrant yellow dome built by the French in the 1930s.

Hai Neang and her customer are both too young to remember when the country was a French protectorate. November 9 will mark the 60th anniversary of Cambodia&39;s independence.

Nor should their nationalist sentiments be mistaken for anti-colonial resentment. Unlike former French colonies such as neighbouring Vietnam or Algeria, no bloody war of independence was fought here, and sovereignty was achieved not down the barrel of a gun, but through the smooth-talking of the late former king Norodom Sihanouk.

"Armed resistance to the French was never very severe, and neither was resentment," explains historian and author David Chandler. "Sihanouk, an ardent Francophile, did a good deal to set the tone."

French influence is still apparent in the country&39;s beautiful, often decaying, colonial buildings, many of which have been turned into bars or restaurants with high ceiling fans and colonial chic that could be taken from a Graham Greene novel.

In the 1960s, French fashion and music had been all the rage among Cambodia&39;s urban classes, but that ended with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. In power between 1975 and 1979, the ultra-Maoist movement tried to create an agrarian utopia, but instead caused the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians through execution, starvation and overwork.

The regime, led by a group of Cambodian intellectuals educated at some of France&39;s best universities, turned back the clock, resetting it at "Year Zero". Libraries of French books were destroyed and anyone suspected of being bourgeois was targeted for "re-education."

The Khmer Rouge "ordered their troops and comrades to crumble or clean up all colonial, feudal and capitalist legacies," explains Vong Sotheara, a professor of history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, contributing to the "destruction of colonial legacies."

Since the Khmer Rouge laid down their arms in the 1990s, "the French have been unable to regain their pre-1979 footing in Cambodia," historian Chandler says.

However, the French language still holds a privileged place in Cambodian society.

French-speakers can be found among educated members of the older generation who survived the mass killings under the Khmer Rouge regime.

There are about 5,000 students taking lessons with the Institut Francais, Phnom Penh&39;s main French-language school. Over 100,000 more study French at primary and secondary schools around the country, although the subject is not compulsory.

Young Cambodians who want to study medicine have to learn French, as it is still the language of instruction.

But more and more Cambodians are learning English and some 30,000 are studying Mandarin - the language, some critics say, of Cambodia&39;s new imperialists.

French is not "the superpower language" any longer, says Royal University&39;s Sotheara. "So young Cambodians have to look at languages that are used by more people in the world for seizing their business opportunities."

As for fashion and music, the Cambodian youth looks to Japan and South Korea for inspiration rather than Europe, with the music of Korean singer Psy and Hello Kitty merchandise all the rage in Phnom Penh.

However, as well as baguettes, some French cultural traditions have survived Cambodia&39;s turbulent history.

The beloved French sport of petanque is popular here, with Cambodian teams often placing well in regional tournaments.

On weekend evenings, men gather to play the sport near the capital&39;s Olympic stadium. "Street petanque" is a favourite Cambodian adaptation: instead of throwing the traditional metal boules, players toss their own plastic flip-flops.