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“To the dead!” : back in France, the remains of six soldiers from Diên Bien Phu receive military honors

In the early morning, the reception pavilion at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport buzzes with unusual activity.

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“To the dead!” : back in France, the remains of six soldiers from Diên Bien Phu receive military honors

In the early morning, the reception pavilion at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport buzzes with unusual activity. Two tricolor flags and two European flags frame a path leading to the tarmac. Pies on their heads, yellow scarves tied around their necks, white socks stretched over their calves, the soldiers of the 7th Alpine Hunter Battalion (BCA) rehearse in large navy blue uniforms. They are preparing to welcome an exceptional load, arriving from Vietnam at 6:45 a.m. by commercial flight. The remains of six French soldiers, who fell during the Battle of Diên Bien Phu, will be returned to their homeland, 70 years later.

The 7th BCA did not participate in the Indochina War. He is present as a picket of honor, these small detachments of soldiers formed especially for a particular service. But “as a young soldier, it makes sense to be here,” says General Jérôme Pellistrandi, present for the ceremony. “It’s a continuity.” At 9 a.m., two large crates covered with a French flag were escorted by the military. No coffin here: the Vietnamese funeral rite traditionally involves cremation. The remains of French heroes were therefore placed in urns.

The temporary coffins come to rest in the middle of the aisle. “To the dead!”, thunders an Alpine hunter. The soldiers stand at attention, and the bugle sounds for the bells for the dead. “France today welcomes the remains of six of its fighters who fell in Diên Bien Phu,” solemnly declares Thierry Laurent, chief of staff of Patricia Mirallès. The Secretary of State for Veterans Affairs is traveling to Canada, alongside Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. “It is right that they return to the land they left so long ago,” continues the minister’s representative. “We don’t know today who they are, but we know what they did, what they endured. They will not be forgotten.”

The Vietnamese authorities gave their agreement for the repatriation of these remains on March 25. They were discovered between 1998 and 2022, in private gardens. “Decision-making processes sometimes take time, we don’t control everything,” explains Thierry Laurent to Le Figaro. However, the links between France and Vietnam are good. From May 3 to 8, Secretary of State Patricia Mirallès will go there, at the invitation of the Vietnamese authorities, to commemorate the 70 years of the Indochina War, her office announces. At midday, the Minister of the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu also announced his presence.

Possible identification of the bodies will also take time. “Everything depends on the biological profile, which will make it possible to establish the stature, size, age or even sex,” explains Marie Meucci, archaeo-anthropologist at the National Office for Combatants and Victims of War (ONaCVG). “If we have bones in good condition and complete, or even teeth, we will be able to find DNA and compare it to military medical files of the time,” she says.

But for these remains, the specialist expects to find “burned bones”. It will then be necessary to “wash” them and study them for several days before possibly obtaining results and writing a report. It is always “quite rare to be able to give an identity”, tempers Marie Meucci, who will take charge of the remains at the bio-cultural anthropology laboratory in Aix-Marseille. A surname plaque was found on one of the bodies, although it is not certain that it belonged to him. “We are in the process of looking for his family, but he was obviously quite young and had no children,” confides the office of Secretary of State Patricia Mirallès. Three of the soldiers clearly belonged to a parachute unit.

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If the bodies of the soldiers are identified, the town hall of birth will be responsible for finding the family. The latter can then choose to have the remains returned to them, to bury them near their home, or to have them buried in a national necropolis or a military square. The unidentified bodies will be buried in Fréjus, at the Indochina War Memorial.

At the end of the short ceremony, the boxes containing the six remains were loaded onto a truck. They will be transported to Suippes, east of Reims, to be unpackaged, examined for the first time and repackaged before leaving for Marseille. On each of them, a Vietnamese bank note of 1000 dong was deposited. The effigy of Ho Chi Minh, winner of the Indochina War, is placed there. A Vietnamese funeral tradition to accompany the journey of souls.

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