A landmark French bill that would allow 27 objects from French national collections to be returned to Benin and Senegal before the end of 2021 is expected to become law – but only after a last-minute clash.
The bill, which was unanimously approved by the French Senate and members of the National Assembly at first reading, was blocked after lawmakers failed to agree on several provisions. But on Thursday, the National Assembly won the support of French Prime Minister Jean Castex, rejecting the Senate’s objections and approving the bill.
Opposition in the Senate threatened to hamper French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to keep a 2017 pledge he made to free from French museums the African heritage looted during the colonial period. Legislation is needed to pave the legal way around a 16th-century principle that protects objects in the national collection from desacession.
The two houses of Parliament clashed over how restitution requests would be handled. The bill initially proposed by the French Senate foresaw the creation of a National Council that would advise on future requests received by French institutions, but the National Assembly then watered down the provision, taking a case-by-case approach. which would require the individual approval of the President.
The latter approach, which would result in a slower process with more oversight from the executive, is what was ultimately pushed despite opposition from senators like Catherine Morin-Desailly, who brought forward a motion to oppose to the National Assembly’s version of the bill on December 15.
“If we remove objects from French collections as diplomatic gifts at the discretion of the Head of State, whoever it is, where are we going?” Morin-Desailly warned at a press conference yesterday. “We must establish a democratic, transparent and scientific method, which allows us to clarify … political decision-making.”
French senators have long criticized Macron’s case-by-case approach to restitution, finding it inconsistent and unclear. Opponents point to the repatriation of a royal crown to Madagascar last month, which Macron returned on a long-term loan, bypassing typical bureaucratic procedures.
Alexander Herman, deputy director of the Institute of Art and Law, which is in the process of creating restitution guidelines for UK museums, writes in a blog post that “it is believed that a National Council would provide a forum for experts to discuss and advise on these issues, rather than making final decisions out of the blue. ”
Macron’s critics have pointed out that this approach is typical of the young president, who is used to bypassing French administrative standards to keep ambitious promises. Herman notes that recently Macron issued a special decree to circumvent environmental regulations preventing him from using stone quarries in order to meet his ambitious five-year schedule for rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral.
Despite the back and forth, the approval marks the latest significant development in France’s small steps towards restitution, which have been progressing slowly over the past three years.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to indicate that the bill passed on December 17, despite opposition from the Senate.
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