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Monday, October 3, 2022

Legislation in French-ruled Vietnam

Updated: 15:59’ - 24/02/2011

>>The state structure in French-ruled Vietnam (1858-1945)

By Pham Diem 
State and Law Research Institute


In the semi-feudal colonial society of Vietnam during the French time, there existed simultanously two legal systems: The French rulers’ legal system and the local feudalists’ system. Yet, the latter was in fact a part and parcel of the colonial legislation and governed by the French’s legislation.

The legislation in the French-ruled Vietnam was typified by the foreign rulers’ policy of dividing to rule. As a result, the country was divided into three regions with three different political statuses and correspondingly three different legal systems:

- The Tonkin (excluding the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong) was a semi-colonial and semi-protectorate territory, which was eligible for the semi-colonial and semi-protectorate legal system.

- The Central Vietnam (excluding Da Nang city) was a protectorate, being eligible for the protectorate legal system.

- Cochinchina and three cities of Hanoi, Haiphong and Da Nang were the colonial territories which were entitled to enjoy the colonial legal system.

All those controlled the forms and contents of legislation.

I.- Sources and forms of legislation

Vietnam’s legislation during the French time was very diversified and rich, which derived from the following main sources:

1.- A number of the French State’s legal documents which were applied in Vietnam. They included:

Some codes of France, which were applied in Indochina, such as the 1804 Civil Code, the  1807 Commercial Code, the 1808 Code of Penal Procedures and the 1810 Penal Code. These Codes took effect in the colonies from the date the Indochinese Governor General issued decrees on their application.

The Orders issued by French Presidents on the appointment of senior French officials in Indochina as well as their powers, on the political regimes in Indochina and the ruling apparatuses therein. For instance, the French President’s Order of October 17, 1887 on the establishment of the Indochinese Federation, which was later supplemented by the Order of January 19, 1899. Or a series of Orders of the Indochinese Governor General such as the Order of October 17, 1887 on the Governor General’s power, which was later supplemented by the Orders of November 12, 1887, May 9, 1889 and January 21, 1891. In more than eight decades, various Presidents of France issued some 100 Orders on Indochina, which were of legislative character in the Indochinese colonies.

2.- Decrees issued by senior French officials in Indochina, including:

- Decrees of the Indochinese Governor General, which were documents of legal binding or laws. Such Decrees governed all aspects of the political, economic, military and social life in Indochina. Particularly, the Governor General’s Decrees of legislative character had to be sent back home to the Minister of Colonies for consideration and approval or disapproval. The Minister of Colonies was not entitled to make any amendment to the contents of the Indochinese Governor General’s Decrees. If he/she wished to do so, the Minister had to draft another document and submit it to the President who would sign such document if he agreed thereon, and the document was considered an Order which was of legislative character and replaced the Governor General’s Decree disapproved by the Minister of Colonies. Depending on which ministry the Decree might concern, such minister would affix his/her signature right under the President’s. So, the Indochinese Governor General’s legislative decrees could only be replaced by the French President’s legislative Orders while the Minister of Colonies had no right to personally issue legislative decrees on Indochina. Yet, for other decrees of executive character, issued by the Governor General, they would often not be submitted to the metropolitan administration.

During their tenures in Indochina, various French Governors General issued hundreds of decrees, including the Decree of December 2, 1921 promulgating new codes applied in the Tokin; Decree of September 18, 1923 on the establishment of the Tokin Education Council, the Decree of April 15, 1924 defining the functions of the ruling apparatus of various levels in the colonies, etc.

- Decrees issued by the French Resident Superiors of the Tonkin and Central Vietnam as well as by the Governor of Cochinchina. These decrees were only of executive character and effective in each region, and had to be approved by the Indochinese Governor General before they were promulgated.

The number of these decrees was much greater than that of decrees issued by the Indochinese Governor General.

3.- Legislation of the Nguyen dynasty, including:

- Documents issued by the kings such as “sac” (royal Order), “chi” (ordinance), “du” (decree). “Sac” was unimportant administrative documents of general character, on the procedures for the recruitment of officials, etc. “Chi” was also administrative documents on such specific issues such as the appointment or dismissal of an official. “Du” was a document of legislative or executive character, which was the most popular form of legal documents issued by kings. For instance, “du” of June 7, 1923 of king Khai Dinh on the amendment to the mandarins’ charter in North Vietnam; “du” of May 2, 1933 of king Bao Dai on reforming the top-level mandarins’ apparatus of the royal court; “du” of December 19, 1935 of king Bao Dai on organizing the administration of commune and village levels, etc.

All legal documents issued by the kings had to be approved by the French Resident Superior of Central Vietnam or the Indochinese Governor General before they were promulgated.

- Various codes: The number of code elaborated and promulgated by the Nguyen royal court was very few, which can be counted on fingers. In its early days, the Nguyen dynasty did not promulgate any code and had to use the “Hoang Viet Luat le” code promulgated in king Gia Long’s time, and only until the first half of the 20th century, a number of new codes were promulgated such as the code on the organizational structure, jurisdiction and operation of the feudal regime’s courts of different levels; the Tonkin civil code and the Central Vietnam civil code, which only differed in their names but resembled in their forms and contents; the code of civil procedures; the penal code and the code of criminal procedures.

The elaboration of the above-said codes and their contents were placed under the strict supervision and censureship of the French.

4.- The village’s rules and customs. These were the village written regulations that governed the social relations within the village community. So far, thousands of such written regulations have been collected.

The village’s written regulations have reflected the Vietnamese villages’ self-rule. The feudal and colonial rulers on the one hand recogni-zed their existence and effect and on the other hand sought ways to reform them in their favor. In order to consolidate their colonial rule through the tight control of villages and hamlets, the French rulers elaborated a number of reformist regulations on models for Vietnamese villages to follow in making their new regulations. But they failed at last and the village of the Vietnamese people still succeeded in maintaining their self-rule.

With respect to their forms, the legal documents promulgated during the French time were characterized by the following:

First, as mentioned above, there were in the then Vietnam two systems of legislation: The French legislation included a number of metropolitan codes applied in Indochina; the Orders issued by French Presidents regarding Indochina, decrees issued by the Indochinese Governor General, the French Resident Superiors of Tonkin and Central Vietnam and the Governor of Cochinchina. The legislation of the Nguyen feudal regime included legislation promulgated by the royal court and the village’s written regulations.

Second, on the form of legal documents, there were codes (including a number of French codes and codes of the Nguyen dynasty); decrees (issued by senior French rulers in Indochina; “chieu”, “chi”, “du” (promulgated by Nguyen kings); and village regulations.

Third, regarding the form of application, different provisions of law were applied to different regions and different types of people.

- Cochinchina and three cities of Hanoi, Haiphong and Da Nang, the system of French legislation were applied. And to the Frenchmen, foreign nationals and Vietnamese with French citizenship, the system of French legislation were applied even if they stayed in Northern or Central Vietnam.

- In Central and Northern Vietnam, the legislation of the Nguyen feudal regime was applied (except for the Frenchmen, foreign nationals, the Vietnamese with French nationality).

Concretely, in Cochinchina during the early period of French rule, French and Vietnamese law offenders were tried by French courts but on the basis of two different legal systems: The French persons would be tried according to French laws while the Vietnamese according to the Nguyen dynasty’s laws in combination with a number of new provisions set for the colonies by the French rulers. Yet, when the French put Cochinchina under the colonial status, the Nguyen dynasty’s laws were no longer effective there, and replaced by French laws. On January 6, 1903, the Indochinese Governor General issued a decree, stipulating that all Vietnamese and French law offenders would be all brought to French courts for trial according to France’s Penal Code applied in Cochinchina. Besides, the Governor General also issued a decree setting a number of provisions on fining people for common offences, which had not been included in France’s Penal Code.

In Northern Vietnam, Europeans and Vietnamese bearing the French nationality would be tried by French courts according to French laws while the locals by the feudal courts of the Nguyen dynasty according to Gia Long Code which was later annulled and replaced by the afore-said codes elaborated under the guidances of French officials and promulgated by Indochinese Governor General for their application to local people in the region.

Meanwhile in Central Vietnam, old legal system and legislation including the Gia Long Code still applied. At the same time, the French rulers pressured the Nguyen feudal regime to amend a number of old laws and promulgate new ones under their direction. For instance, in 1918, king Thanh Thai had to issue a decree on poll tax so that the French could collect all of such tax in Central Vietnam. Particularly, in 1936, the Tonkin Civil Code was amended and gradually applied throughout Central Vietnam under another name: the Central Vietnam Civil Code.

II.- Major contents of the legislation during the French time

1.- The administrative legislation

This included French Presidents’ Orders and decrees issued by the Indochinese Governor General, the French Resident Superiors of Northern and Central Vietnam and the Governor of Southern Vietnam, which stipulated the establishment, functions, tasks and powers of various organizations and agencies of the French ruling apparatus in Indochina in general and different regions of Vietnam in particular. Prominent among those legal documents on administrative affairs were French Presidents’ Orders on the establishment of the Indochinese Federation and the Indochinese Governor-Generalship.

The Royal Court in Hue also promulgated numerous legal documents on the matters, including those on the founding or dissolution of agencies and organizations in the administrative system of the Nguyen feudal regime, as well as on the appointment, transfer or dismissal of mandarins.

2.- The civil legislation

This included France’s Civil Code applied in Vietnam, the Tonkin Civil Code and the Central Vietnam Civil Code. Besides, many legal documents on civil affairs were promulgated by French officials and the Hue Royal Court. The civil legislation regulated civil relations regarding contracts, marriage and the family, inheritance.

3.- The criminal legislation

This included France’ Penal Code, the Gia Long Code, and the Penal Code promulgated later, which all focussed on the political offenses labeled as “rebellious crimes”, “crimes against the French government”, on which harsh punishments were imposed. Together with these, systems of courts and prisons were set up. Within only 10 years (1902-1912), 24,380 people were sentenced to hard labor, life imprisonment or death by French colonialists’ or local feudalists’ courts.

4.- Other regulations:

They were regulations on finance, banking, compulsory circulation of Indochinese banknotes, poll tax, salt tax, alcohol tax; regulations on colonial exploitation and economic monopoly, on labor: the recruitment of laborers for rubber plantations, forced labor in Indochina, wages, working hours, social insurance, etc.

In short, legislation became an important means for the French colonialists to protect their ruling position and exploit the colonies of Vietnam in particular and entire Indochina in general.-


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