France Gets New Immigration Museum As DNA Row Rages

France gets new immigration museum as DNA row rages

Agence France-Presse

PARIS — A new Paris museum celebrating the role of immigration in French history opened to the public Wednesday, amid a fierce row over plans by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government to introduce DNA tests for would-be immigrants.

Located on the eastern rim of Paris, the National Museum on the History of Immigration was championed by former president Jacques Chirac but historians involved have been at loggerheads with the new government over the issue of immigration.

Although Chirac was to visit the site Thursday and Culture Minister Christine Albanel was to make an appearance Wednesday, there are no plans for a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, perceived by some as a snub to the new venture.

“This is France's Ellis Island and it would have been natural for the president to honor it with its presence,” said historian Patrick Weil, referring to the former immigration gateway to the United States, now home to a museum.

Weil and eight other historians resigned this year from the museum's governing body in protest at Sarkozy's creation of a ministry of immigration and national identity, seen as a bid to court the anti-immigrant vote.

They have also joined the chorus of protest, from left-wing critics, religious leaders and some members of the ruling right, against a bill currently going through parliament that would allow DNA testing for immigrants wishing to join relatives in France.

The opening comes a day after a left-wing member of Sarkozy's government, Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, threatened to resign in protest over the toughening of French immigration policy.

“Speaking as an immigrant's daughter, I've had enough of seeing immigration exploited all the time…. I think it's disgusting,” said Amara, who is of Algerian origin.

The museum is housed in what used to be the Paris museum of African and Oceanic arts — whose collections were transferred last year to the new Quai Branly museum of tribal arts and cultures.

“Our approach which is to show the benefits of immigration is not the same as the systematic suspicion that goes with DNA tests,” said fellow historian Gerard Noiriel.

Using maps, photo and video archives, artwork and collected bric-a-bric, it retraces two centuries of migration to France, from southern and central Europe, from France's former African colonies and more recently from Asia, “to get people to understand and acknowledge” the benefits of immigration.

Although France has Europe's largest immigrant population, and one in four French people have at least one foreign grandparent, “their story is hardly known and is not acknowledged,” said the museum's co-president Jacques Toubon.

From France's most celebrated Polish immigrant, Nobel-winning physicist Marie-Curie, to the workers who kept French factories and mines ticking over in the post-war years, to the delights of pizza, couscous and sushi — it looks at how immigrants shaped French culture, language and history.

The government's contested DNA plans are part of a broader drive to tighten immigration rules, restrict conditions of entry for foreigners and step up the deportation of illegals.

Orders from the head of the paramilitary gendarmerie were revealed Wednesday telling units to intensify their efforts to catch illegal immigrants, saying that too many were not fulfilling deportation targets.

Amara's outburst sent a shockwave through the ranks of the right-wing UMP party, where secretary general Patrick Devedjian urged her not to “insult” its members.

Several voices in both the UMP and the Socialist opposition called for her to resign, raising questions over Sarkozy's decision to recruit several prominent left-wingers to his government as a sign of “openness”.

But the cabinet closed ranks around Amara — a star member of the government — with Prime Minister Francois Fillon telephoning Wednesday to assure her of his “confidence in her work”, while Sarkozy, speaking from Moscow, urged all sides to “calm down”.