Permanent and full repatriation of African property looted during the colonial era should become a guiding principle of French cultural institutions.
That’s the conclusion of a 108-page study commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron last year shortly after he announced his five-year plan to deal with the collateral damage of the country’s imperial past in a historic speech at Ouagadougou University in the west African country of Burkina Faso. Macron will meet with the report’s co-authors, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese academic writer Felwine Sarr, before officially releasing the document to the public on November 23.
The French weekly magazine Le Point previewed the report, which is subtitled, “Toward a new relational ethics.” Accordingly, Savoy and Sarr have published their findings, based on interviews with around 150 specialists in France and on the African continent. Rumors have swirled in the French art world about how the oncoming study could alter their industry. Many in the museum and gallery communities fear the possibility of full restitution. Back in September, one art expert told Agence France-Presse that because this is such a difficult promise to keep, the study could potentially open “Pandora’s box.” Others have recalled the trenchant, multiyear battles that took place over past restitution cases and doubt that such a policy could be easily implemented, and if it were, could result in an apocalyptic emptying of museums.
“Through the objects and stories held in so-called ethnographic collections, controlled representations of societies, which are often essentialized, have been put in place,” write Savoy and Sarr. “To speak openly about restitution is to speak of justice, rebalancing, recognition, restoration and reparation. But above all, it is to pave the way for the establishment of new cultural relationships.”
Under current French law, museums are forbidden from permanently parting ways with any of their accessioned objects. Instead, cultural institutions can partially restitute looted objects with long-term loans of between 25 and 99 years. The new study advocates that such “transitional solutions” should only be used “until legal mechanisms are found to allow the final and unconditional return of heritage objects to the African continent.” This statement references last month’s controversial announcement that Nigeria’s national museum would display European-looted items loaned back to them by countries like Britain, Germany, and Austria.
But changing France’s existing legal guidelines will require much more than a report. Macron must pass related legislation through parliament, which has increasingly distanced itself from the European leader whose approval rating currently hovers around 25 percent. Recent polls also indicate that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party might overtake Macron in the country’s 2019 elections.
Savoy and Sarr divide restitution guidelines between those objects fairly purchased in Africa from those seized during the 18th- and 19th-century military campaigns and scientific missions, plus anything gifted to a museum by a colonial officer or administration. The report recommends that institutions facing a huge deaccessioning crisis create faithful replicas of their colonial objects for display.
Geopolitically, the report plays into Macron’s evolving policies toward international relations and cultural diplomacy. Shortly after his overtures to President Donald Trump failed in America, he soon pivoted toward francophone African countries for increased economic and investment opportunities that might benefit France’s stagnant industries. He has made both inroads and enemies through this initiative, which has manifested in a variety of cultural referenda like the upcoming restitution report.
In September, the French president stunned the world by recognizing the torture and execution of Maurice Audin, a young French Communist, by the French Army during the Battle of Algiers in 1957. The announcement won him praise with some in the north African country, but others said it was an empty gesture that merely acknowledged the death of a French citizen by French soldiers. Earlier this month, Macron stood with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at a ceremony in Reims, France honoring the soldiers who died during World War II. The joint event was ostensibly meant to honor the 200,000 colonized African soldiers who fought in the war under the French flag but are seldom recognized for their contributions in the European country.
Over the summer, Macron was criticized for claiming that “civilizational” problems and women having “seven or eight children” had hindered development in Africa at July’s G20 summit. He made those comments to a reporter from the former French colony Côte d’Ivoire. In his reply, he also listed issues including Islamist terrorism, drugs, and weapons trafficking. In response, France’s Libération newspaper highlighted how the president’s comments greatly ignored the role of colonial France in shaping the continent’s current predicaments.
Notably, the upcoming study “concerns only the sub-Saharan part of Africa,” and therefore excludes the northern region of the continent most effected by French colonialism, including modern-day countries like Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.
If Macron succeeds in transforming the report into law, France would become the first country with a policy of full restitution. And because France houses many of the world’s leading art institutions, their new guidelines could conceivably incite similar policy changes around the world.