New French immigration museum heats up policy debate

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PARIS, Oct 9 (Reuters) Parisians can trace the history of immigration to France in a new museum this week, but many rights groups and historians say this tribute to diversity seems at odds with President Nicolas Sarkozy's tough line on immigration.

Based in a monumental building that used to house a tribute to colonisation in the 1930s, the National Centre on the History of Immigration mixes statistics, charts and photographs with immigrants' accounts of their dangerous journeys to France.

''France has a history that is unique in Europe. France is the United States of Europe,'' Jacques Toubon, the museum's president told Reuters, as labourers installed giant charts showing migration flows to France and the rest of the world.

''Throughout the 19th century and until the 1950s, all European countries ... were countries who sent a large number of nationals to America, Australia and New Zealand. They were emigration countries.

France has been an immigration country.'' Sarkozy is himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant and made national identity a major theme of his election campaign this year when he promised tough measures against illegal migration.

The museum near Paris's Bois de Vincennes park will discretely open its doors on Wednesday with neither Sarkozy nor Immigration Minster Brice Hortefeux expected at the ceremony.

Media said ministers wanted a low-key opening because they feared rallies against government policies, which have included moves to crackdown on illegal immigration and a draft law to allow DNA tests to verify foreigners' family links.

''SURPRISING SIGNAL'' ''It's a surprising signal, even a bit shocking,'' historian Patrick Weil commented on Sarkozy's absence. ''It's a museum that concerns 20 to 25 per cent of the French population, who are immigrants or of immigrant origins.'' Weil is one of several historians who resigned from the new museum's scientific council to protest against Sarkozy's creation of a ministry for immigration and national identity.

The historians said twinning the two issues risked reinforcing racial prejudice.

''This museum shows the contribution of immigration to French history while the ministry is a signal of suspicion versus immigration,'' Weil told Reuters.

France's Human Rights League welcomed the museum but said: ''We would have hoped for it to emerge in a political climate different to today's, dominated by a curb in foreigners' rights ... a 'hunt on foreigners' and expulsion quotas.'' Sarkozy's office said the president was in Russia on Wednesday and declined further comment on the matter.

Immigration is a sensitive issue in France, where officials say 200,000-400,000 foreigners live without residency papers.

As interior minister in a previous conservative government, Sarkozy had already tightened immigration laws after youths in poor suburbs -- many of them the descendants of immigrants -- torched thousands of cars in three weeks of rioting in 2005.

The government has told police to expel this year at least 25,000 foreigners without valid visas or papers.

REUTERS SG KN1804

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