Ready or Not, France Opens Museum on Immigration

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

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. ...

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