French Bill Would Authorize Permanent Restitution of 27 Objects to Former French Colonies

On July 15, the Conseil d’État, which advises the French government on proposed legislation, published information about a bill that would authorize the restitution of 27 objects looted from Africa during the colonial era.[1] The measure marks the first legal action taken by France after the release of a groundbreaking report on colonial restitution almost two years ago.

The 2018 report, requested by President Emmanuel Macron and written by Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, made comprehensive recommendations on how to address the legacies of looting that occurred under colonial rule, focusing on the approximately 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa housed in French national collections.

The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris houses the majority of the objects from sub-Saharan Africa in French national collections. “Museé du Quai Branly_0282” by elyorcher is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The bill currently under consideration would enable the return to the Republic of Benin of 26 objects seized by French troops in the 1892 sack of Abomey Palace in the Kingdom of Dahomey, as well as the return to Senegal of a sword that belonged to Omar Tall, a political and spiritual leader who fought against French colonial rule. The sword, stolen from Tall’s son after his father’s death, was sent to Senegal last year on loan. 

Among the challenges faced by those seeking restitution from French institutions is the principle in French law that objects in national collections are inalienable, making specific legislation (like the one being considered here) or other legal action necessary to allow a return. France has passed such legislation on only two other occasions: in 2002 to return of the remains of Saartjie Baartman to South Africa; and in 2010 to return Maori remains to New Zealand.

The action represents a step towards the realization of Macron’s goal to return cultural heritage objects to African nations, with the Conseil d’État noting that the bill would implement French commitments to cooperate with African nations and that the provenance of the objects justifies the transfer. The viability of Sarr and Savoy’s broader recommendations, beyond the return of these specific objects, remains to be seen.

Olga Symeonoglou is an attorney in the DC office of Cultural Heritage Partners.