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Immigration Museum Opens in France Amid Debate and Controversy


France's first museum showcasing the country's history of immigration has opened in Paris - to a storm of controversy. Lisa Bryant has more on the immigration debate from the French capital.

Located in eastern Paris, the National Complex of the History of Immigration aims to retrace France's history of immigration during the past two centuries - and the role immigrants have played in the nation's construction.

Though many years in the planning, the museum's opening occurs while legislation making its way through parliament to toughen French immigration laws has generated fierce criticism.

Even members of the center-right government have voiced concerns over one clause in the bill - on voluntary DNA testing of applicants wishing to join their families in France.

Earlier this year, eight researchers resigned from the immigration museum to protest the new name of a French ministry - the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. They said the name reflects wariness toward immigrants, rather than acceptance. But the researchers said they supported the intent of the immigration museum.

Some people also criticized French President Nicolas Sarkozy for not being present at the opening. However, Mr. Sarkozy is on an official visit to Moscow. The country's immigration minister also did not attend. An official inauguration of the museum is to take place at a later date.

In an interview with Radio France International, museum President Jacques Toubon argued the institution plays no role in the political concerns.

Toubon said it is important to distinguish the role of the immigration museum, which is cultural and educational, from that of politics.

But critics like Mouloud Aounit, the head of the Paris-based NGO Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples, says it is impossible for the museum, as a public institution, to stay out of the political debate.

But Aounit, whose family immigrated from North Africa, says he plans to visit the museum soon - with his children.

Illegal immigration has been an important issue for the current government, and was a campaign issue for Mr. Sarkozy before his election earlier this year.

French officials say 200,000 to 400,000 foreigners live in France without residency papers. The government has told police to expel at least 25,000 foreigners without valid visas or papers this year.

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