by Aralena Malone-Leroy
- France -
When in 2002 President Jacques Chirac resuscitated a proposal for the creation of a museum of immigration, he was honoring an unpopular dream that had been in gestation for nearly 15 years. First proposed in 1989 by Zaïr Kedadouche, a second-generation Algerian municipal councilman, with support from a small group of historians, the project was considered too politically risky by then-President François Mitterand. Almost ten years later, in 1998, riding high on the euphoria of France’s post-World Soccer Cup win, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin tried to renew interest in the project, even recruiting representatives from the Human Rights League and various public officials to launch a proposal for a site - but the initiative stalled and faded again.
Councilman Jacques Toubon, a municipal counselor in Paris and the Project Director of the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, in an opinion piece in Le Monde on October 7th, attributed the delay in the Cité’s realization to the political power struggle between battling leftist and rightist politicians to a “confusion between slavery, colonization, and immigration among the Left, which is an obstacle to the realization of such a project.”
However, the Right, represented by President Sarkozy and his newly-formed Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, certainly failed to show its support for the museum: on October 10th, the day the Cité opened its doors to a modest audience, neither President Sarkozy, nor the Minister of Immigration and National Identity, Brice Hortefeux attended the inauguration.
Paris’ mayor, Bertrand Delanoë was present at the opening, but asserted that “while the goal of the Cité is that of an assembled regard towards the future, from a shared history, government policy is dividing France and fueling the temptation to make scapegoats out of foreigners.”
Conflicting themes and visions of immigration in France are evident both at the site and in the exhibition of the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. The museum is located in a historic building originally built for the Colonial Exposition of 1931, which until recently housed the Museum of African and Oceanian Art. However, as one approaches the museum, what one sees first are armed military officers guarding the gated entrance. Then, to the left of the entrance, planted on the lawn, a series of plywood art installations display historical quotes on immigration and France. What is astonishing is that for every billboard quote praising the contribution of immigrants in France is another underlining the xenophobia that is alive and well. At the very least, advertising xenophobia seems an odd prelude to a museum celebrating immigration. Inside the museum, one finds the exhibition is confined to a limited area of the 4th floor of the building, where unfinished exhibition spaces are a surprising disappointment. Even more conspicuous, however, is the absence of any current information. The political movements of the past ten years have dominated public debate and, indeed, are what turned the very creation of the museum into a symbol of how controversial the subject of immigration in France really is.
Dr. Patrick Weil, renowned expert and historian of immigration in France comments, “The current government is uneasy with a historical project that reveals actual facts that have occurred, instead of stereotypes.” Weil is one of eight historians who resigned from the museum committee on May 8, 2007. That group cited the creation of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity as an unacceptable evolution in the politics of immigration, one with which they refused to be associated.
Another potentially contentious shadow was cast over the Cité’s opening: on October 8, 2007, just two days before the museum’s inauguration, the High French Council on Integration announced it would oversee a new Institut d’Etudes sur l’Immigration et l’Intégration (Institute of the Study of Immigration and Integration). Touted as an “independent” think-tank, its predisposition toward immigration has been evident from the outset. Implemented by Minister of Immigration Brice Hortefeux, the majority of the individuals elected to study current immigration trends and questions are neither immigration scholars nor experts. In fact, the elected president and historian of the institute, Mme Hélène Carrère, caused a minor scandal when in 2005, during in interview regarding the Parisian suburb riots, she stated, “These people, they come directly from their African villages... In one apartment, there are three or four wives and 25 children. They’re so packed, they aren’t apartments anymore, but God knows what! One understands why these children run around in the streets.”
Project Director Jacques Toubon is now marking the opening of the long-awaited museum with a special four-day celebration. Unfortunately the heated and sometimes dramatic debates surrounding immigration legislation reform in France threaten to tarnish its already tenuous stature.
About the Author
Aralena Malone-Leroy, currently divides her time between creating buzz at a high-tech PR firm in Paris, France, pursuing a Masters in Communications and Journalism, and writing about her (mis)adventures in the ville lumière.