France's new National Museum of Immigration opened last week amid what looked like official indifference. But it may have a real role to play if it can assert its independence, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Click to view caption|
The arrival of the Liberty Ferry from Algiers, 1988, Jacques Windenberger (top); les voitures cathédrales, 2004, Thomas Mailaender (left)|
Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration, Paris
Immigration, both legal and illegal, has been near the top of the political agenda in France at least since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president earlier this year. And while the government has expressed its desire to bring more qualified immigrants to France in the manner already being carried out by other western countries, it has also taken measures to crack down on illegal immigration and announced that there are more such measures to come.
Quotas have been issued for the expulsion of illegal immigrants, the so-called sans papiers, back to their countries of origin in mostly North or sub- Saharan Africa, and DNA testing is planned for people wishing to join their families legally in France. According to the French minister of immigration, integration and national identity, between 30 and 80 per cent of identity documents issued in some sub- Saharan African countries are false. DNA testing is a way of finding out whether an individual is who he says he is and whether he is in fact related to others already in France.
These measures and others like them have led to much ill-feeling, and there have been a number of tragic stories: one woman, in France illegally, recently jumped to her death from the window of a Paris apartment building to escape police she thought had come to deport her. There have been rumours of "round-ups" of illegal immigrants by police patrols checking identity papers, and in some Paris districts schools have been carrying banners protesting against the expulsion of non-French pupils.
The inauguration of the new Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration on 10 October could therefore hardly have come at a more sensitive time. And, as if in recognition of this fact, the new museum, planned from 1989 but only opened this year after a series of delays, was ignored by senior members of the French government, with neither the president nor the prime minister making it to the opening. The hapless minister of culture was sent along to do the honours instead, a sign, if one were needed, that the new institution would be seen as playing a strictly second-order role, at least in official circles, and that it would likely be neither invited to get involved in present controversies nor noticed by politicians.
However, if the new institution is to have a role to play in national life then it will have to be prepared to enter the conversation on matters of public policy. Indeed, Jacques Toubon, a former minister and now president of the museum, has said as much, commenting in a piece that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde that the museum aims to "change the way people think about immigration and make it into a question that can be looked at rationally and not in terms of fantasy."
France is a country of immigrants to a degree unusual in Europe, Toubon wrote in material circulated at the museum's opening. While the present political discourse has tended to obscure the fact, "the history of France and the construction of its identity and civilisation is largely that of the millions of men and women who left their countries of origin in order to settle in France and become French," from the Italian, Portuguese and Spanish immigrants that came to France in the first half of the last century to the Arab, Vietnamese and African immigrants that arrived in the second.
It would be a pity if this new museum for the history of immigration, promisingly situated opposite the Parc de Vincennes at Porte Dorée in south-east Paris and apparently enjoying a substantial public budget, were to be marginalised from public debate and turned into yet another "place of memory" -- with which the French capital is already littered -- without any real relation to present political choices and controversies.
The building housing the museum was built for the 1931 colonial exhibition, one of the last in a series of pre-war exhibitions designed to show off the benefits that Europe's colonies in Africa, Asia and Oceania were bringing to metropolitan societies, among them France.
While the discourse of the time chose to stress the allegedly mutual benefits of this relationship, Europe exporting "civilisation" and "development" to its colonies in exchange for their raw materials and manpower, all such notions received a body blow after the Second World War, when France's colonies first in South-East Asia and then in North and sub-Saharan Africa demanded and eventually received their independence. The French "mandate" territories of Syria and Lebanon had already broken free of French rule at the end of the Second World War.
The magnificent reliefs showing the benefits of the relationship with Europe that still adorn the building seem rather quaint as a result, and visitors to the new museum are unlikely to dwell on French sculptor Alfred Janniot's elaborate visions emblazoned across the building's main façade. Advancing along the building in massive progression, these show French colonies laying their produce in front of an allegorical figure of France perched above the building's main entrance.
For the architects charged with converting this listed colonial-era building to its new function as a museum of immigration, the task has involved allowing the building "to speak for itself" while at the same time breaking up its original meaning. The building's monumental entrance hall has been domesticated by the construction of a bookstore and a café, for example, while the central salle des fêtes, a vast space decorated with colonial-period frescos and surrounded by galleries, has been converted into a public forum. This was being used for radio broadcasts during the museum's opening week. While access to the permanent exhibition is still by way of the original stairs, an external access way is planned. Designed by Japanese installation artist Tadashi Kawamata, this can only help to refashion the building further.
On reaching the exhibition spaces at the top of the building visitors are greeted by charts showing patterns of human migration over the past century or so, including into and out of Europe. In the exhibition itself emphasis is placed on the human aspects of immigration, video projections, biographical texts, photographs and objects from the everyday lives of successive waves of immigrants being used to drive home the idea that immigration into France has meant a kind of double challenge for those involved: first, an uprooting from their societies of origin, and second, the challenge of integration into France.
Immigrants typically bring their cultures, languages and other items of mental and physical baggage with them, and the exhibition makes great play with the physical aspects of relocation. Immigrants have come to France in boats, cars, planes, rafts and on foot, bringing all manner of bags and cases with them, as well as various souvenirs of home. Films and photographs are used to visualise these successive arrivals, while display cases contain some of the different objects, many of the meanest kind, that immigrants have brought with them to begin new lives in France.
This material, evidence of the trauma of migration, is complemented by material bearing witness to a second trauma upon arrival in France. Even during the glory years of post-war immigration, roughly from the mid 1950s to mid 1970s, life could be difficult for immigrants coming to work in France's expanding industry, with long hours in physically tiring jobs and solitary rooms in workers' hostels or welfare hotels being the lot of many. However, when the post-war boom ended the lives of these new immigrants became even harder: growth slowed, unemployment began its inexorable rise, and immigrants were blamed for the economic crisis, being seen either as taking "French jobs" or as being a "burden" on a state that was falling ever more deeply into debt.
This situation has not substantially changed since the 1980s, and politicians on the right have not hesitated to blame immigration for the country's economic and social woes. The struggle of France's immigrant communities for rights and recognition is highlighted in the exhibition, as is their contribution to wider French society and culture.
The exhibition repeats some rather tired clichés here, for example regarding the contributions of men of immigrant origin to France's 1998 World Cup football team, including that of the captain, Zinedine Zidane, as well as the contributions of second and third-generation immigrants to French cultural life and particularly to the country's youth culture. However, on the whole the exhibition resists the temptation to talk up the achievements of a handful of celebrities, instead focusing on ordinary lives and the experience of more representative individuals.
According to the museum's director, the collection aims to "blend different ways of looking" at the experience of immigration, mixing historical, ethnographic, anthropological and art historical approaches. Thus, she says, the displays mix materials of very different kinds, with historical and educational material being placed cheek-by-jowl with personal reminiscences and works by artists concerned with migration or immigration. Among these are Hamid Debarrah's Chronique du foyer de la rue Très Clo"tre, which records the lives of men living in one of the French capital's workers' hostels, and an installation by artist Barthélémy Toguo entitled Climbing Down.
Judging from the crowds at last week's opening, the new museum has been enthusiastically welcomed by the French public, if apparently not by the country's officialdom. The building itself is not finished, and an auditorium is planned for 2008 and a research centre for 2009, as well as further changes to the physical fabric. While the permanent collection anchors the institution and provides a summary of its concerns, it seems that the main function of the new Cité will be to serve as a venue for talks, meetings and debate.
An ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions is planned, beginning with a season on Armenian immigration to France, together with a series of colloquiums and art installations. Anyone not speaking French is likely to be at a disadvantage at these events, with all the material available during opening week being in French including the essential audioguide to the permanent collection.
Last week's opening augers well for the future of this intriguing institution. But whether it will really play the role assigned to it depends upon how far it is able to assert its independence from France's all- enveloping cultural bureaucracy. If it can do this, then it has a chance of attracting new audiences to learn about issues of great contemporary interest. If it cannot, then it runs the risk of becoming another promising initiative lost to the forces of creeping bureaucratisation.
Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration, Palais de la Porte Dorée, avenue Daumesnil, Paris