Ready or Not, France Opens Museum on Immigration
leido en NYTIMES.COM
PARIS — Immigration is the big, unavoidable issue not just in the United States but across Europe now, and nowhere more obviously than here in France. The latest proof arrived last week in the form of a new museum, the National Center of the History of Immigration. On the edge of the city’s Bois de Vincennes, in a comfortable neighborhood, it has opened far from the poor suburbs where Muslim youths rioted a couple of summers ago, burning thousands of cars partly in protest against Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, now president.
Mr. Sarkozy guaranteed that the museum, a pet project of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, would make headlines when he conspicuously did not show up for its inauguration.
Nor did many other people when I stopped by the other day. I am told that thousands showed up the first few days, but only a small crowd milled around on the museum’s first Saturday afternoon. There’s no charge for admission. There’s no fancy gift shop or cafe, either, and the place has the slightly ramshackle, melancholy air of a temporary installation. It shares an old building with an aquarium that occupies the basement. Most visitors, when I looked, headed downstairs.
Sparsely devised with charts, graphs, interactive gadgets and odds and ends of memorabilia meant to humanize what is a fairly dry, lifeless display, the museum is a well-meaning dud. Its obvious reluctance to dwell on touchy subjects like the occupation of Algeria is predictable, this being a government enterprise.
That said, multiculturalism, which by its very existence the museum takes for granted, is an alien and incendiary concept here. Unlike much of Europe, France is an immigrant nation, the number of immigrants having risen from one million in 1881 to 2 million by 1962 to 3.7 million by 1982. (It has dropped a bit since then.) It is estimated that 20 percent to 25 percent of the present population has an immigrant background.
But being a French citizen means you’re not categorized as African French or Southeast Asian French or West Indian French; you’re just plain French. That’s the republican ideal, citizenship bestowing theoretical equality, belying the reality of racism. French schoolchildren are steeped in the concept of a single France. The law actually forbids taking a census according to ethnic or racial categories.
So when a wall text in the immigration museum refers to French histories, implying there is more than one French history, more than one version of a Frenchman, that simple statement, which can sound harmless to an American, raises eyebrows here.
Curiously, the building in which the French have chosen to house the museum used to be part of the International Colonial Exposition of 1931. A sculptured frieze on the facade, an Art Deco-era marvel by Alfred Janniot, shows French colonial laborers toiling for the glory of the empire. Across the street, a memorial from 1934 honors Jean-Baptiste Marchand, who helped spread French rule in Africa. Standing tall in crisp tropical-weight military wools, Marchand leads a troupe of half-naked African servants.
Via the building and the memorial, the locale implicitly acknowledges French colonialism’s ugly side and gives the new institution some historical context. There are a few photographs in the display documenting protesters against anti-immigration policies, and some anti-Semitic publications from the turn of the last century.
Otherwise, the museum makes do with magazine covers, yellowing newspapers and trivia extolling immigrant athletes like Raymond Kopa and Zinedine Zidane, the soccer players; or Rachid Taha, the singer of dual French and Algerian citizenship; or Chopin. At a touch-screen display, I came across a boy with his father — they seemed to be of Arabic descent and talked in French — who were trying to match foreign words with their origins.
Plasticized vitrines, chic but deeply impractical (very French), bore printed quotations from immigrants. The message: People emigrate from many places, for many reasons, with difficulty, often reluctantly, and they bring their cultures with them.
In case you didn’t know.
“The history of immigration is one thing, and the history of slavery and the history of colonization are other things,” Jacques Toubon, the museum’s president, told me, somewhat defensively I thought. France “is very late in confronting the truth about its colonial history,” he said, but the purpose of his museum “is to tell the story of immigration.” That sounded to an American like devising a museum for African-American or American Indian cultures but skipping gingerly over slavery, segregation and Manifest Destiny.
Mr. Toubon added, “We’re inside a building that is a memory place for colonization, but our message is the contrary: to show what all these people coming to France for two centuries have brought, which ends up being not just the history of immigration but the history of France.”
An old ally of Mr. Chirac, a lifelong government functionary and former culture minister, Mr. Toubon knows the ancient art of protecting himself while oh-so-delicately criticizing an opponent. To Mr. Sarkozy — the son of a Hungarian immigrant, as is often pointed out — the idea of atonement is political anathema. Lately his government has proposed the use of genetic testing to verify the bloodlines of would-be immigrants who want to join family members here. One of his own ministers called the idea “disgusting.”
Meanwhile, the police have been ordered to expel 25,000 immigrants “sans papiers,” without papers, before the year ends. Newspapers here have been publishing articles about immigrants like Chulan Liu, a 51-year-old divorced woman from North China, who died last month after leaping from her window when policemen knocked on her door; and Ivan Demsky, a 12-year-old son of Chechen asylum-seekers who slipped off a fourth-floor balcony in Amiens when he and his father tried to evade authorities. Opponents of the government have started forming what they’re calling the new Resistance.
But Mr. Sarkozy is the most popular president since de Gaulle. Two years ago, in a poll taken by the National Human Rights Commission, one-third of those surveyed acknowledged that they held racist views. That same year right-wingers in Parliament passed a resolution praising former French rule in the colonial and overseas territories. The resolution spoiled a plan by Mr. Chirac, who as a junior officer in Algeria knew firsthand something about what had gone on there, to forge a friendship treaty with Algeria, a step toward apologizing.
Mr. Sarkozy, campaigning in February in Toulon before a conservative crowd with “pieds-noirs,” French expatriates from Algeria and elsewhere, said France “should be proud of its past and stop this nonsense about repentance.”
Then came the awkward moment on May 10 when, as the incoming president, Mr. Sarkozy had to appear with Mr. Chirac at an event that Mr. Chirac devised to honor the memory of French slaves. After that, Mr. Chirac’s immigration museum was a kind of ticking time bomb for his successor.
It had long been part of the larger multicultural legacy Mr. Chirac devised for himself — his iteration of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets or the Pompidou Center — which included the enormous Musée du Quai Branly. In a cavernous new building by the celebrity architect Jean Nouvel, it opened last year as a showcase for African, Oceanic and other non-Western art. With piped-in drums and a heart-of-darkness, junglelike interior, it seemed comically patronizing but, predictably, became an instant crowd-pleaser.
The new immigration museum is different. It’s more symbol than tourist attraction. Two other museums, in Marseilles and Perpignan, are slated to open in the next few years in response. They cater to the right wing, endorsing French colonial rule and honoring the so-called Harkis, Muslims who fought alongside the French during the war in Algeria.
It’s hard to say who will go to the National Center at the moment, save for bored schoolchildren on compulsory field trips, although the place has the potential to be a constructive troublemaker. Mr. Toubon promises, in time, a program of events to add meat to the bare-bones display, which he says will also change.
Clearly the place needs to do more than cheerlead, feign scholarly impartiality and make vague noises about past injustices to have any impact. It needs to try to steer a debate that is reshaping France and the rest of Europe.
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