France Has Approved the Return of 27 Artworks to Benin and Senegal, Signaling What May Be a New Era for Restitution

The landmark move comes three years after French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to repatriate African heritage.

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Benin's president, Patrice Talon at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images.
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Benin's president, Patrice Talon at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images.

The French Senate has 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 move, which was cemented on November 4 with a unanimous vote from all 343 French senators, follows parliament’s decision in October to approve a bill related to the restitution.

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

The bill sanctioning the return relates specifically to royal artifacts stolen from the palace of Abomey 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. Also involved in the return is a saber that belonged to an anti-colonial military commander, which is currently on loan from the French Army Museum to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal.

The move sets a significant precedent for the return of colonial-era loot 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” that may challenge the legitimacy of national collections around the world. But French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot says the return “in no way calls into question” the principle of inalienability because it involves only 27 specific objects that were formally requested by the governments of Benin and Senegal.

Bachelot also distanced the restitution from the narrative of “repentance,” saying it was instead “an act of friendship and trust.” 

The senate has also decided to create a national council to oversee the return of “extra-European cultural goods.”

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

In February 2019, Ethiopia requested the return of 3,081 cultural objects held in the quai Branly, while in May, Chad asked for all Chadian items in French national collections to be brought back to the country. That request covers around 10,000 objects.

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

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