Phnom Penh, as planned by the French, came to resemble a town in provincial France. By the second half of the 19th century, France had begun to expand its colonial penetration of Indochina (the peninsula between India and China). In 1863 France accepted the Cambodian king’s invitation to impose a protectorate over his severely weakened kingdom, halting the country’s dismemberment by Thailand and Vietnam. For the next 90 years, France ruled Cambodia. In theory, French administration was indirect, but in practice the word of French officials was final on all major subjects-including the selection of Cambodia’s kings. The French left Cambodian institutions, including the monarchy, in place, and gradually developed a Cambodian civil service, organized along French lines. The French administration neglected education but built roads, port facilities, and other public works. Phnom Penh, as planned by the French, came to resemble a town in provincial France.
The French invested relatively little in Cambodia’s economy compared to that of Vietnam, which was also under French control. However, they developed rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia, and the kingdom exported sizable amounts of rice under their rule. The French also restored the Angkor temple complex and deciphered Angkorian inscriptions, which gave Cambodians a clear idea of their medieval heritage and kindled their pride in Cambodia’s past. Because France left the monarchy, Buddhism, and the rhythms of rural life undisturbed, anti-French feeling was slow to develop.
King Sihanouk, through skillful maneuvering, managed to gain Cambodia’s independence peacefully in 1953. During World War II (1939-1945), Japanese forces entered French Indochina but left the compliant French administration in place.
On the verge of defeat in 1945, the Japanese removed their French collaborators and installed a nominally independent Cambodian government under the recently crowned young king, Norodom Sihanouk. France reimposed its protectorate in early 1946 but allowed the Cambodians to draft a constitution and to form political parties.
Soon afterward, fighting erupted throughout Indochina as nationalist groups, some with Communist ideologies, struggled to win independence from France. Most of the fighting took place in Vietnam, in a conflict known as the First Indochina War (1946-1954). In Cambodia, Communist guerrilla forces allied with Vietnamese Communists gained control of much of the country. However, King Sihanouk, through skillful maneuvering, managed to gain Cambodia’s independence peacefully in 1953, a few months earlier than Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which marked the end of the First Indochina War, acknowledged Sihanouk’s government as the sole legitimate authority in Cambodia.