Presenting immigration

David Tresilian , Tuesday 15 Aug 2023

France’s National Museum of Immigration has reopened to visitors after three years of renovation, presenting an image of the country as both an importer and exporter of populations, writes David Tresilian

The French National Museum of Immigration


If not le Tout-Paris, then at least a significant cross-section of it, turned up at the French National Museum of Immigration for its long-awaited reopening after three years of renovation on the weekend of 17-18 June.

There were crowds in front of the Museum’s landmark building, originally a main pavilion of the 1931 French Colonial Exhibition, with queues of visitors waiting to enter an institution that in the past has sometimes had difficulty attracting audiences.

While the Museum has an enviable location near the Paris Zoo and opposite the Vincennes Park in the 12th district of Paris, it is not an obvious destination for many visitors to the city who tend to stay in more central districts around art museums, theatres, and entertainment venues.

Perhaps all this will now change with the reopening of the newly renovated Museum. If it can build on the buzz generated by the reopening weekend and escape from the grimly educational atmosphere that has sometimes hung over it, France’s Museum of Immigration could become a popular destination in a country where a third of the population is thought to be descended from immigration.

The Museum originally opened in 2014 with a permanent exhibition that took a thematic approach to immigration to France. Separate sections dealt with leaving countries of origin, arriving in France, and integrating into French society, presenting these from the perspective of immigrants to the country.

Issues such as relations with the French authorities were examined – the changing regulations that have governed the issuing of residence and work permits and the granting of asylum – along with questions of accommodation, access to work and social security benefits, and the retention or abandonment of family and other links to countries of origin.

The exhibition focused particularly on 20th-century immigration, notably after the Second World War, when France, like many other European countries, began to see the arrival of greater numbers of particularly non-European immigrants. Many of these were recruited to help reconstruct the country and to feed the demand for labour that was a feature of European economies during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s.

The original exhibition highlighted this period of increased immigration, often from France’s former colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and the transformations of French society that also took place in it. First and second-generation immigrants began playing a larger role in the country’s economic, political, and cultural life than had been the case before the Second World War, with some becoming national figures.

Given the importance of particularly the Arab Maghreb countries to France and the French economy before and after the Second World War, it was no surprise to see the experiences and contributions of Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian immigrants to France underlined, as well as the smaller, but still very significant, contributions made by populations of Syrian and Lebanese origin.

The new exhibition at the renovated Museum has completely reorganised this presentation. Instead of a thematic presentation there is now a chronological one, and instead of a presentation that focuses on the experiences of recent and not-so-recent immigrants to France there is now one that seeks to relate the longer course of French history not only to immigration but also to emigration and more broadly to the movement of populations.

The idea, Director of the Immigration Museum Constance Rivière told the French newspaper Le Monde, was “to put history and depth back into the presentation.” Immigration and emigration and the movement of populations had long played an important part in the history of France, she said, but this had not always been fully recognised.

For Francois Héran, a professor at the Collège de France in Paris and a member of the Museum board, the new presentation “fully integrates the history of immigration into the history of France.” The result of a report by a committee of historians chaired by Patrick Boucheron, holder of the chair in Mediaeval and Early Modern French History at the Collège de France, the new exhibition is both broader and deeper in focus, pushing the starting date back to the 17th century and bringing the story right up to the present.

“The new permanent exhibition is not content merely with telling the story of migration into France or from France to the rest of the world,” Héran wrote in the book accompanying the new presentation. “It presents the history of France through the prism of migration.”

“This includes not only the treatment that our country – the population as well as the authorities – has reserved for immigrants and emigrants throughout the ages, but also the treatment that it has meted out to minorities within the country.”

“In no sense does the exhibition emphasise either ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ populations, foregrounding either the one or the other on the basis of origin. Instead, it traces the relations between them over time, always bearing in mind the aim, which is the ‘majoritisation’ of all minorities within the framework of a republican order in common.”


Chronology: The exhibition starts with the decision by French King Louis XIV in 1685 to cancel the Edict of Nantes, promulgated by King Henri IV in 1598, which had given Protestants the right to practice their religion in France.

Taken with a view to reinforcing France’s Roman Catholic credentials during the wars of religion that wracked much of 17th-century Europe, it led to the departure of hundreds of thousands of French Protestants, many of whom fled to neighbouring Holland or Britain.

At the same time, the exhibition says, France was becoming more and more involved in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, with ports such as Nantes in the west of the country flourishing as a result. It includes copies of the Code Noir, the set of rules governing the French trade that was also issued for the first time in 1685.

From these beginnings – the exodus of French Protestants in the face of persecution and France’s involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans – the exhibition takes a broad look at migration, seeing it, in these two cases, as involving the movement of populations out of and through France as well as to then French territories.

It takes a deeper historical perspective, driving the starting date back some three hundred years earlier than the previous exhibition. The new chronological presentation continues with further landmark dates picked out and illustrated by images, documents, and, latterly, audio and video recordings.

The next date is 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution and the titanic two-decade struggle that led to the rise of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the French conquest of much of Europe, and, finally, the Restoration of the French monarchy.

Once again, the exhibition tells this story by focusing on the movement of populations, from the fleeing of emigrés from France to escape the violence of the Revolution to the new conception of citizenship that it brought with it, with foreign sympathisers often being made “political citizens” of the country.

It continues with other dates that look very much like a textbook history of France. 1848 – the year of revolutions across Europe and the final end of the French monarchy –is followed by 1889, the year in which the Second Republic shook up France’s citizenship laws. 1917, marking the First World War and, elsewhere in Europe, the Russian Revolution, is followed by 1931 and economic crisis in Europe. 1940 marks the collapse of France in the face of German invasion.

These dates are followed by 1962, the end of France’s colonial empire with the independence of Algeria after eight years of war, 1973, renewed economic crisis in Europe, 1983, the growing presence of particularly second-generation immigrants in French political and cultural life, 1995, the enactment of the Schengen Agreement on free circulation across the European Union, and, finally, the present day, marked the exhibition says, by the crisis of migration across the Mediterranean in the wake of the crises in Syria and Afghanistan.

Overall, there is much more material in the new exhibition than there was in the old one, partly due to its far greater historical scope and partly due to a desire to draw connections between individual experiences and the larger events of French history.

The court of British King James II took refuge in France in 1689 following Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the exhibition notes, using this to illustrate a particular experience of migration. More importantly, the British writer Thomas Paine, author of the revolutionary tract The Rights of Man, was made a political citizen of France in 1792 when things became difficult for him in Britain.

Refugees flooded into France in 1848 and after following the failure of the Revolutions that took place across Europe. Meanwhile, other Europeans, desperate for employment or fleeing repression at home, began signing up to the French Foreign Legion from 1831 onwards, with this later being used to carry out French colonial conquests, notably of Algeria.

An Egyptian immigrant to France from these years is mentioned in the exhibition. Joseph Agoub (or Ayoub?) travelled to France with the Expeditionary Force that had tried to conquer Egypt under the command of French general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 until it was defeated by the united forces of Egypt, the then Ottoman Empire, and Britain. According to the exhibition, he did well in France, eventually becoming a professor of Arabic.

The second half of the 19th century saw France become Europe’s most important host country for immigration. Seasonal workers from Spain and Italy began flooding into the country, with many of them staying. Meanwhile, the French Atlantic ports became main exit points for emigration to the United States, accelerating in the final decades of the 19th century and reaching a high point before the First World War.

While this emigration saw millions of Europeans leaving for new lives in the United States from countries such as Germany, Poland, Italy, and Ireland, there was no comparable movement of the French population.

In its final parts, the exhibition presents the history of the past half century, mentioning in particular the arrival of hundreds of thousands of workers from the Arab Maghreb countries to work in French industry during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s before being cold-shouldered or worse once economic crisis set in after 1973.

Refugees flooded into France from Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s. The advent of the European Union in 1993, followed by its enlargement to much of Eastern Europe in 2004, led to the arrival of populations from across the European continent.

While absorbing all this history can be dizzying, the exhibition is punctuated by rest points that make it more manageable. Exiting from the new exhibition on the weekend of the Museum’s reopening, it was impossible not to feel that every country should have its own museum of immigration.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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