The French National Assembly voted Tuesday evening to pass a law that will return 27 colonial artifacts from French museums to Benin and Senegal. The vote will take place almost three years after President Emmanuel Macron promised in a speech in Burkina Faso to allow “the temporary or permanent return of African heritage to Africa” within five years.
If passed, the law would force France to return 26 works looted from Benin’s royal palace at Abomey, which are in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. A sword that belonged to the West African military leader Omar Saidou Tall returned permanently to Senegal from the French Musée de l’Armée. The sword is currently on loan to the Musée des Civilizations Noires in Dakar.
The French government launched an “accelerated procedure” in July to allow parliament to quickly vote on the bill. Forty-nine MPs approved the bill at first reading in the House of Commons, none against; six abstained. It is now being voted on in the Senate. If it is accepted by senators and legally signed, the works will be returned within one year.
If the Senate did not approve the bill, either a small number of MPs and senators would come together to reach an agreement on disputed issues, or a second reading of the bill would be sent to the National Assembly and then to the Senate.
The draft law was presented by the former Minister of Culture Franck Riester, who is now responsible for foreign trade, as the current Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot isolates herself after contact with a person who tested positive for Covid-19. Riester told the National Assembly that the bill represented “the long and significant work that has been done in Burkina Faso since Macron’s 2017 speech”. It embodies “a new ambition for [France’s] cultural relationship with the African continent ”, he said, it was not about“ repentance or reparation ”but“ based on new forms of cooperation and the dissemination of works ”.
But the bill does not go far enough for the President of Benin, Patrice Talon. He told the weekly publication Jeune Africa that he was “not satisfied”, although he recognized “small steps” for France. Benin is striving for “a general law” for the return of cultural artefacts and not the “strict minimum” of the present law, which specifies 26 objects, said Talon.
Although there is “consensus” to return African objects through this law, the legislation is “very specific” and not a huge departure for France, says Marie Cornu, cultural heritage law specialist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the CNRS.
France has passed similar individual laws to repatriate human remains kept in museums, most recently the skulls of 24 Algerian anti-colonial fighters from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Based on a legal principle from the 16th
“It cannot be ruled out that other restitution claims will be made by other states and that there will be other legislative procedures,” says Cornu The art newspaper. A broader legal framework could be considered, she says, “to make matters easier so that Parliament does not have to vote on each restitution individually and pass a bill”.