Will French Museums Return African Objects? Emmanuel Macron Says Restitution Is a ‘Priority’

The French president has said that African heritage cannot be "the prisoner of French museums."

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the Ouagadougou University on November 28, 2017. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron has promised to make the restitution of French-owned African heritage a priority over the next five years. In a speech delivered on a visit to the West African republic of Burkina Faso as part of his African tour today, he said that he wants “the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”

The speech was delivered in the country’s capital city in front of around 800 students at the University of Ouagadougou. In the address, Macron spoke about the links between France and Africa and his hope to promote cultural exchange and the mobility of talented people between Europe and Africa. 

Notably, Macron also spoke strongly and directly about restitution of African objects in French national collections. He said:

I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums. African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou. In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa. This will be one of my priorities.

The statement was met with applause, but left some wondering what this “priority” truly means for collections of African heritage in France, such as those held by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. It is believed that more than 4,500 such objects could be currently held in French museums and private collections. Macron has since tweeted about the issue, writing, “African heritage can not be the prisoner of European museums.”

In March, lawmakers and civil society groups from Benin and France penned an open letter to then-French President François Hollande asking for the return of a host of “colonial treasures” that were taken during French rule of the region at the turn of the 20th century.  

The request was formally rejected by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stated that the property in question definitively belonged to the French State. Although Emmanuel Macron did not expressly support the return of Benin’s claimed heritage, the Ouagadougou speech has revived hopes that the state might backtrack on its earlier statement.

The history of restitution in France is long and complex. It stretches back to 1566, when the edict of Moulins stated that property inherited by the sovereign was “inalienable” and could not be given away. That principle has since been applied to French national collections. Nevertheless, the last few years have seen attitudes on restitution begin to shift.

In 2010, France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy sent nearly 300 volumes of manuscripts that had been seized by French soldiers from the Korean royal archives back to South Korea on long-term loan. The decision garnered intense criticism from those who claimed the move violated state law.

The Musée du quai Branly did not immediately respond to artnet News’s request for comment.

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