France approved the return of 27 works of art to Benin and Senegal, signaling what could be a new era of restitution


The French Senate approved the return of 27 pieces of African heritage from the country’s national collections to their places of origin in Benin and Senegal within one year. The decision, which was cemented on November 4 with a unanimous vote of the 343 French senators, follows parliament decision in October approve an invoice related to restitution.

This historic decision paves the way for the first permanent return of objects taken to Africa during French colonial missions, and is a historic moment for President Emmanuel Macron, who promised three years ago to rebuild cultural ties with African nations. by committing to restore a heritage that had been unfairly removed during colonial exploits.

The return bill deals specifically with royal artifacts stolen from Abomey Palace in present-day Benin by French troops in 1892, and which are now in the collection of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. Return is also involved a saber that belonged to an anti-colonial military commander, currently on loan from the French Army Museum to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal.

This decision sets an important precedent for the return of colonial-era booty from French national collections, which are protected by a 16th century legal principle as “inalienable” parts of the country’s national heritage.

Some have criticized the new law as opening a “Pandora’s box” which can dispute the legitimacy of national collections around the world. But French Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot affirms that the return does not “call into question” the principle of inalienability because it only concerns 27 specific objects which have been formally requested by the governments of Benin and Senegal.

Bachelot also distanced the restitution of the account of “repentance”, claiming that it was rather “an act of friendship and trust”.

The Senate also decided to create a national council to oversee the return of “extra-European cultural property”.

Since Macron pledged to reassess France’s national collections, the country has received new requests from countries to return specific items.

In February 2019, Ethiopia requested the return of 3,081 cultural objects held at the Quai Branly, while in May, Chad requested that all Chadian objects from French national collections be brought back to the country. This request covers around 10,000 objects.

In September, Côte d’Ivoire requested the return of an Atchan drum (also from Quai Branly), and this year Mali also formally requested the return of 16 items. Madagascar has also requested the return of a royal crown to the Army Museum.

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