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Restitution

France returns a historic sword to Senegal

The gesture is intended as a symbol of France’s commitment to repatriating African heritage

Omar Saïdou Tall's sword was seized by French troops © Musée de l'Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Anne-Sylvaine Marre-Noël

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe handed a historic sword to Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, as a symbolic gesture of France’s commitment to its pledge to return African cultural heritage.

The sword belonged to Omar Saïdou Tall, a prominent 19th-century Muslim spiritual leader who fought French colonialists in the 1850s in a region of West Africa that is now Senegal. His possessions, including the sword, were seized decades later by French troops.

The gesture comes a year after the publication of a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, which recommend the return of African artefacts in French museums. There are about 90,000 Sub-Saharan artefacts in French public collections, many of them looted or acquired during the colonial era. Senegal gained independence from France in 1960.

France has yet to make good on Macron’s pledges: nothing has as yet been definitively returned, and a promised conference on the subject has yet to materialise. Permanent repatriations will also require a change in French law, which deems museum collections to be “inalienable.”

Today’s ceremony is therefore “not strictly speaking a restitution,” the French government said in a statement. The sword, whose leather handle is trimmed with a base shaped like a bird’s beak, has already been on display in Senegal’s new Museum of Black Civilisations as a loan from the Musée de L’armée in Paris. Nonetheless, Sall welcomed the return as “historic,” saying it signals “a new chapter in French-Senegalese relations.”