French Discover Their Immigration History (Not Really)

The French government has opened a National Center of the History of Immigration in Paris and Michael Kimmelman visits it for the New York Times. The result is a great, great piece that highlights the ways in which some French officials conceive of immigration. Here’s just one tiny excerpt:

“The history of immigration is one thing, and the history of slavery and the history of colonization are other things,” Jacques Toubon, the museum’s president, told me, somewhat defensively I thought. France “is very late in confronting the truth about its colonial history,” he said, but the purpose of his museum “is to tell the story of immigration.” That sounded to an American like devising a museum for African-American or American Indian cultures but skipping gingerly over slavery, segregation and Manifest Destiny.

Do read the entire piece here.

One thing Kimmelman could have pointed out is that the French name for the center is: Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, which, in a very literal translation, means simply “National City of the History of Immigration,” and so the word cité is meant to suggest republican notions of unity, and of a single, indivisible, unhyphenated French identity. But cité is also the colloquial word in French for the suburbs around the big cities where immigrants live. This is a bit like building a museum for Mexican-Americans and calling it the “barrio museum.” And the worst part of it is: I don’t even think French officials realize the ambiguity.

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