French National Assembly approves restitution bill to return 26 artefacts to Benin and Senegal

French National Assembly approves restitution bill to return 26 artefacts to Benin and Senegal
Interior of the Quai Branly Museum, where more than 70,000 African artefacts, artworks, and objects are reported to be held. Courtesy Flickr Commons.
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In recent years, France has grappled with how to handle its vast collection of more than 90,000 African artefacts, many of which were stolen during colonial times. The National Assembly of France, however, has unanimously passed a bill that could oversee the restitution of a number of objects to Benin and Senegal.

If the bill, which was first proposed in July, is approved by the Senate as expected, 26 items of historical significance will be returned to their home countries. Among the objects are a sword and scabbard, currently on long-term loan to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, believed to have belonged to El Hadj Omar Tall, a 19th century West African leader. A royal throne and statues taken from the Royal Palaces of Abomey, now Benin, in 1892 are also among the items that could soon be returned. If the bill passes, these items will be returned to Senegal and the Republic of Benin, respectfully, alongside the other items.

“I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” said French president Emmanuel Macron in a 2017 speech addressing the people of the West African republic of Burkina Faso. “In the next five years,” he pledged, “I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitutions of African heritage to Africa. This will be one of my priorities.” With that speech, Macron commissioned a report and its findings would prove to be potentially damning for French museums and institutions, let alone others across Europe, whose collections include such looted items.

However, in the years following Macron’s landmark speech and the commission of the report that would be conducted by Benedicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr in 2018, the momentum behind Marcon’s promises slowed to a glacial rate. Primary obstacles included French laws stating that national collections are “inalienable and imprescriptible.” In other words, under French law, institutions are barred from the restitution of accessioned artworks and artefacts held in national collections.

The bill’s significance could extend beyond the restitution of the items at hand, though, as it holds the potential to set new standards for French institutions moving forward. If passed, the bill could help Macron once again gain momentum in order to come through on promises made three years ago.

The bill’s approval by the National Assembly comes just days after activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza appeared in court after he and other members of the group known as Unité Dignité Courage attempted to take a 19th century funerary post from the Quai Branly Museum. The funerary post was recovered by museum security and Diyabanza stated that the demonstration was an attempt to “claim back the stolen property of Africa, property that was stolen under colonialism.” After being held in Paris for three days, Diyabanza performed similar protests in Marseilles, France and Berg en Dal, the Netherlands. Ahead of his September 30th hearing, Diyabanza sued the French state with allegations of “theft and receiving stolen goods.” The outcome of his trial is expected on October 14th.