On Tuesday, Francois Hollande became the first French president in 12 years to visit Vietnam, a former French colony. Despite their troubled past marked by a nearly decade-long war that ended with France’s military defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam in 1954, relations between Paris and Hanoi have warmed during Hollande’s presidency, part of France’s deepening interest in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific more broadly.
By a number of measures, the visit was a productive one. Vietnam Airlines purchased 40 jets from France’s Airbus, totaling $6.5 billion in sales; low-cost private airline VietJet purchased 20 planes, totaling $2.39 billion; a regional budget carrier, Jetstar Pacific, purchased 10. The two countries released a joint statement indicating that they would soon expand cooperation on defense and maritime security, among other areas.
While the visit was considered a success, Quoc-Thanh Nguyen, a researcher at the IrAsia center of the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University, says it must be put into perspective. “Compared to what the Vietnamese signed with the Americans during Obama’s visit—$11.3 billion for 100 Boeing planes—the French deals are quite small,” she says. President Barack Obama made a three-day trip to Vietnam in May. Nguyen attributes the smaller French deals to a “real lack of aggressiveness in the approach of French negotiators and business leaders” that will keep France trailing behind the United States in terms of expanded ties. “Behind the Boeing deals is Vietnam’s desire to get closer to the U.S.,” she says.