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Paris museum seeks to tell the story of how immigration shaped modern France

The new exhibition at the French National Immigration History Museum, which reopened in June, seeks to provoke reflection on French identity in a context of the rise of the extreme right

Visitors at the permanent exhibition of the French National Immigration History Museum in Paris.
Visitors at the permanent exhibition of the French National Immigration History Museum in Paris.Cyril ZANNETTACCI (Cyril Zannettacci / VU')

The history of France is also the history of all those who have arrived over the passage of time to live on French territory, dating back as far as the 17th century. At least that is one of the messages that the French National Immigration History Museum in Paris, which reopened its doors this summer after a three-year renovation, is seeking to put across. Through a chronological tour, the museum’s new collection aims to tell the story of how the country has been built through the contribution of its millions of immigrants. A common and sometimes tumultuous history that, according to the institution, helps to provide understanding of an essential part of the French identity and to break down prejudices in the context of the rise of the extreme right.

“France cannot be understood without immigration. One third of French people are of immigrant origin. It is part of our history and even of the construction of the country and of the French spirit,” says Constance Rivière, general manager of the Porte Dorée Palace that houses the museum. The imposing art deco building, in the southeast of Paris, holds its own significance. It was built in 1931 for the Paris Colonial Exposition and its façade features an impressive bas-relief gallery, which sought to exalt the colonial power that France was at the time.

The Porte Dorée Palace in Paris.
The Porte Dorée Palace in Paris.Pascal Lemaître

The exhibition focuses precisely on that colonial past, although it begins more than 200 years earlier, in 1685. On that date, King Louis XIV promulgated the so-called Code Noir (Black Code), a decree regulating the slave trade in the French West Indies and defining slaves as objects, not people. On the wall of the first room, one fact stands out: more than 1.4 million Africans were deported by France to its colonies between 1642 and 1848. The exhibition then goes into other details, such as the ban established in 1777 on “colored people” entering French territory unless they worked for a white person. Little by little, the exhibition lays out the way in which the requirements to be a French citizen were defined and redefined.

“There are many people who are immigrants today, but who at a certain time were considered French nationals. I am thinking in particular of Algerians,” says Rivière, who succeeded former education minister Pap Ndiaye and worked in the cabinet of former socialist president François Hollande. Algeria, a French colony from 1830 to 1962, occupies a key place in the exhibition. Its citizens were considered neither French nor foreign, but “indigenous,” “French subjects” and later “French Muslims of Algeria.”

Visitors in the section of the exhibition dedicated to the treatment of slaves in France and its colonies.
Visitors in the section of the exhibition dedicated to the treatment of slaves in France and its colonies. Anne Volery

“We don’t count as human beings here”

The exhibition mixes history and personal experience. It tells the story of the Senegalese Tirailleurs (sharpshooters) recruited by France to fight in World War II and of the foreigners who participated in the resistance. Between 1947 and 1975, the number of foreigners in France doubled to 3.4 million, during an era when cheap labor formed the backbone of the country’s post-war reconstruction.

Migrants took the jobs that the French did not want, such as the Spanish maids, portrayed in photos and in a documentary filmed in 1969, in which a young Galician migrant describes her work and living conditions as an employee of a wealthy family in Paris. “We live in a family, but we don’t feel like a family. When everyone is together at mealtime, we are alone in the kitchen. This family atmosphere is forbidden to us,” she recounts. “We don’t count as human beings here,” she adds, as images of the large apartment where she works scroll by.

Between 1964 and 1979, the country also welcomed 15,000 political exiles from Latin America, mainly Brazilians, Argentines, Uruguayans and Chileans. Then came some 13,000 refugees who fled Vietnam by sea after the war. But the reception conditions, the exhibition points out, were not always ideal, and neither were the often-unsanitary places where migrant workers were housed. This situation led to major social protests in defense of the rights of migrant workers and, later, against violence and crimes against immigrants, which were on the rise at a time of stricter immigration policies in the context of an economic crisis.

“Between 1945 and 1980, there was no law on immigration. Between 1980 and today, there is a new law almost every two years. It has become a political fact and the museum has to draw attention to it. It is part of France’s relationship with immigration,” explains Rivière.

Spanish maids photographed by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, on display at the museum.
Spanish maids photographed by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, on display at the museum. © Jean-Philippe CHARBONNIER / RAPHO-TOP

The emergence of the ‘banlieues’

The museum also focuses on two key moments in 1983, when the far-right National Front party — now Marine Le Pen’s National Rally — won its first municipal election victories with an openly anti-immigrant discourse. At the same time, in the southern city of Marseille, a group of 32 people started a march for equality and against racism that ended weeks later in Paris with a demonstration numbering some 100,000 people. The protest shook French society and constituted the first political eruption of second-generation immigrants.

The exhibition also devotes space to the emergence of the banlieues and how they began to insert themselves into the political debates of the 1980s when these suburbs, populated mainly by the children and grandchildren of immigrants from the Maghreb and Africa, experienced their first outbreaks of violence and clashes with police forces. These flared up again two months ago after a 17-year-old of Moroccan and Algerian descent was shot and killed by a policeman in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

To mark its reopening, the museum launched a publicity campaign with posters that read: “It is incredible how many foreigners have made French history.” One of them portrayed the monarch Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who reigned for 72 years. In small type and in brackets, it added: “Spanish mother, Austrian grandmother.”

A room at the exhibition displaying anti-racist posters.
A room at the exhibition displaying anti-racist posters. Anne Volery

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