French Immigration Museum Highlights Hot Topic

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La Cite de l'Immigration, on Paris' eastern edge, is a grand forum dedicated to exploring hundreds of years of immigration in France. It opens as a new and tougher immigration bill makes its way through the French parliament.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Immigration is back in the news in France with a new and tougher bill that's making its way through the French parliament. Critics have attacked this measure as divisive, and one member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet contends the issue as being exploited for political ends. All this comes as a new museum paying homage to immigration in France opened in Paris.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: La Cite de l'Immigration on the eastern edge of Paris is a grand forum dedicated to exploring the hundreds of years of immigration in France. Its photos, films and artifacts chronicle the ebb and flow of the waves of immigrants that have shaped France.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Videos tell the story of the Russians and Spaniards who fled revolutions and dictators, the Poles who came to work in the coalmines, the Jews who left persecution in Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany, and the Turks and North Africans who came to rebuild the country after World War II.

For much of its history, France has been a country of mass immigration. And today one in three French people has a foreigner in their family tree. Jacques Toubon is the leader of the museum project.

Mr. JACQUES TOUBON (Cite Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration): A lot of people, probably the majority, are thinking that immigration is against our country, you know, against France. And history is showing to us immigration was contributing to build what is France today - a kind of civilization which is made of different cultures, way of lives, religions.

BEARDSLEY: The museum opened its doors in the midst of a heated battle over President Sarkozy's new immigration bill currently making its way through the French parliament. The bill aims to curb immigration while allowing in more skilled workers and less family members of unskilled workers.

It mandates that immigrants speak French, and it includes a controversial proposal which encourages the voluntary use of DNA tests to determine the relationships of immigrant families. Human rights groups and opponents of the proposal say it could prevent adopted and stepchildren from joining their parents and would pressure applicants to submit to expensive DNA tests whenever their documents were questioned.

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The issue has sparked fierce debate in the French parliament, and now one of Sarkozy's own cabinet members has broken ranks. Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, the daughter of Algerian immigrants and one of a handful of socialists in Sarkozy's center-right government, said the issue of immigration was being exploited in a disgusting way.

But Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has never apologized for his belief that immigrants should fully integrate into French society. During the presidential campaign, he attracted tens of thousands of voters from the far right by promising to get tough on immigration.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BEARDSLEY: Back at the museum, two visitors are in a heated argument over the subject of immigration. Senegalese immigrant Jobal Dyali(ph) is watching the row.

Mr. JOBAL DYALI (Immigrant, Senegal): (Through translator) There's a huge contradiction between what's happening today in France and what you see in this museum. We're against the DNA law because it means they don't want us to bring our families here from Africa. A man can't live without his family. When de Gaulle called upon the former colonies to come help and fight to liberate France, they sure didn't ask us to take a DNA test then.

BEARDSLEY: But the government says the DNA test will speed things up for genuine immigrants and help root out the fraudsters. And, it says, at least 11 other European countries are already using them.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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