French restitution bill passes final hurdle in parliament

Vote by National Assembly paves the way for the return of 27 colonial-era artefacts to Benin and Senegal within one year, but “will not create a legal precedent”

French parliament gave the restitution bill its final approval today

France will return 27 colonial-era artefacts in museums to Benin and Senegal within one year, following a unanimous vote by the National Assembly on 17 December. Overriding late opposition from the Senate, the National Assembly gave its final approval to a restitution bill transferring ownership of 26 plundered royal artefacts from the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac to the Republic of Benin and a sword from the Army Museum to Senegal.

In a preliminary address to the house, French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot hailed a bill that “marks the culmination of a long process” and “embodies a new ambition in our cultural relations with the African continent”. On a visit to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November 2017, President Emmanuel Macron made a landmark pledge to return African heritage to Africa. But the process of restitution has been obstructed by France’s heritage code, which considers museum collections “inalienable”. New laws are therefore required to remove individual objects before they can return to their countries of origin.

Though the Benin-Senegal restitution marks a watershed moment for Macron’s presidency, Bachelot emphasised that it “will not create a legal precedent”, since it only applies to the 27 artefacts specified and “does not establish any general right to restitution”. The law “in no way calls into question” the principle of inalienability of France’s national heritage, she said.

Bachelot also stated that France accepts to return museum works on the condition that they “continue to be preserved and presented to the public in places dedicated to this [heritage] function”. The Republic of Benin is building a new museum in the city of Abomey that will house the 26 returning artefacts, with support from the French Development Agency, while Senegal is already displaying the sword as a diplomatic loan at the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar.

“France supports the initiatives of these two countries in favour of heritage, well beyond just restitution,” Bachelot said. “This text is a true act of friendship. It will allow the Beninese and Senegalese peoples to reconnect more directly with their past and access the constituent elements of their history, as our own collections allow us to do.”