The ornate, sculpted facade of Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée is a majestic allegory: at its centre is France, symbolising peace, prosperity and abundance, surrounded by her “possessions”, the colonies, offering up their riches, reports The Observer.
Today the magnificent art deco palace, built for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, houses the History of Immigration Museum, a popular venue for school visits. Its director, Hélène Orain, says the museum is a vital reminder of France’s colonial past. “We have a duty to remember. We must say what we did, take responsibility for what was done, including the pillaging and abuses. Our role is to show how we changed the destinies of the countries and continents we colonised.”
For the students queueing outside the museum on a bitterly cold morning last week, the news headlines made their visit particularly pertinent. In an undiplomatic outburst, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi di Maio, had blamed France for forcing poor African migrants to flee their countries by running them as de facto colonies.
“France has never stopped colonising tens of African states,” said Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star Movement. “The EU should sanction France, and all countries like France, that impoverish Africa and make these people leave, because Africans should be in Africa, not at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”
His comments came after two boats carrying migrants sank, one off the coast of Libya and a second in the Mediterranean, drowning an estimated 170 people.
Quick to put the boot into Emmanuel Macron ahead of May’s European elections, Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party and Italy’s other deputy prime minister, said France had a “very bad government and president”. The language was hostile and on a subject always guaranteed to raise hackles in France: colonialism.