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Last update on November 12, 2019

A new museum celebrating the role of immigration in French history opened amid a fierce row over plans to introduce DNA tests for would-be immigrants.

PARIS (AFP) – 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 edge 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 whole issue.

A snub to the venture?

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

“This is France’s Ellis Island. It would have been natural for the president to honour it with his 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.

The chorus of protests

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 came 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 a 1931 art deco building that used to be the Paris museum of African and Oceanic arts — its collections were transferred last year to the new Quai Branly museum of tribal arts and cultures.

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.

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.

Pulling together a shared history

Temporary exhibits planned for the coming months include a study of Armenian refugees in the inter-war period and a series of portraits of Ellis Island.

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.

Several Socialist Party heavyweights attended the opening, including Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe who lashed out at the government.

“This museum is about pulling together around a shared history and a common future; the government’s policy is dividing France and feeding the temptation of making foreigners our scape-goats,” he charged.

“All the fears on the left and right concerning the ministry of immigration and national identity have come true.”

The government’s plans for DNA tests — a tool adopted in 12 other European countries — 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 step up efforts to track down illegal immigrants, warning too few were meeting their deportation targets.

Amara’s outburst against government policy sent a shockwave through the ruling right-wing UMP party, with several voices in the party and the opposition calling for her to resign.

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.”