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French President Wants to Return Benin’s Artifacts, But Will French Law Allow Him?

Emmanuel Macron’s decision is a gesture of goodwill, but these objects comprise just 0.5 percent of the objects requested for restitution by the West African country.

Installation view at the Musée du quai Branly (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday, November 23, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that his country would permanently return 26 looted objects to the nation of Benin following the official release of a landmark inquiry into the restitution claims of formerly colonized African countries. The decision was made shortly after Macron’s 90-minute meeting with the report’s authors, art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr.

Although he moved spectacularly quick toward the dream of full restitution, Macron’s unprecedented move does not necessarily signify his administration’s willingness to part with the hundreds of thousands of African objects stored in the country’s various museums. According to Reuters, the 26 artifacts in question were seized from Benin in 1892 as spoils of war when France sacked the 300-year-old Kingdom of Dahomey; they are just a small fraction of the 5,000 works requested by the West African government, just .05 percent. Furthermore, the French president’s news came upon the recommendation of France’s Ministry of Culture and the Musée du quai Branly — Jacques Chirac, which holds over 70,000 African objects.

Indeed, the museum’s chairman Stéphane Martin responded quite optimistically to the French government’s announcement in The Art Newspaper, despite looming fears that the cultural institution will eventually have to part with the majority of its collection, replaced with copies. He emphasized that his museum proposed “the return to Benin of regalia from his collection, as an important symbolic gesture toward Africa.”

What this indicates is that the museum supports restitution insofar as it is a limited symbolic gesture, which might ingratiate French authorities to their partners in Africa. Coincidentally, the French president proposed restitution alongside an additional call for a Euro-Africa conference on the return of African artifacts to be held in Paris by next April, in the first quarter of the fiscal year.

Installation view at the Musée du quai Branly (via Wikimedia Commons)

Halfway through their report, authors Sarr and Savoy openly question why the government would support restitution. They wonder if it is an act of soft power aiming to re-valorize France’s image to an increasingly less Francophile Africa, or whether it is a grander attempt to institute a new “relational ethics” between peoples  by helping to “give back to them an impeded or blocked memory.”

According to Reuters, Macron’s recent restitution announcement assuaged Sarr’s fears. “We have sensed a real desire by the executive to act,” he told France’s daily Libération newspaper. “I was skeptical at the beginning. I am now convinced this is not just a publicity stunt.”

Yet it remains to be seen how Sarr and Savoy’s report will translate into legislatively enforced action. How far can Macron take restitution based on the goodwill of France’s museums? Based on the commentary by Europe’s museum leaders, not very far. From London to Berlin, museum directors recognize that the precedent in France could further legitimize calls for restitution in their own countries.

The British Museum holds 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its collections, many obtained in colonial times. Yet the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, tells The New York Times that France’s restitution plan “does not change the policy of the British Museum, nor legislation in Great Britain.” The museum still maintains ownership over the Elgin marbles, despite Greece’s repeated requests for repatriation. More recently, Fischer has had to field requests from the governor of Easter Island for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a, a popular statue from the island within the museum’s collection.

Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, was more diplomatic in his response — likely because his mega-museum of non-Western art will open next year amid this unfolding call for restitution. He acknowledged the need for European museums to repatriate looted items but also questions the extent of this mission. “How far back will you go? Until Roman times?” he said to The Times. “Because many items in Rome were robbed somewhere in Greece or in ancient Egypt.”

Installation view at the Musée du quai Branly (via Wikimedia Commons)

The reality of Macron’s political calculation is catching up to him. As Hyperallergic earlier reported, the legal mechanisms of this report are not in place in France. Quite the opposite. The French consider their public collections inalienable, meaning that it’s legally impossible to remove any object from a collection for any reason. This is one of the underlying reasons why Macron’s proposal to return 26 objects to Benin is just that — a proposal. This stopgap is designed to protect France’s colonial hoard from dissolution, and precedent indicates that those Beninese objects will have a difficult road to Nigeria.

In fact, this legal hurdle is a reason why long-term loans (between 25 and 99 years) became commonplace in the museum world. Back in 1991, South Korea requested the return of Korean manuscripts housed in the French Bibliothèque Nationale taken from the country in 1866 during a violent French expedition. In 2010, former president Nicolas Sarkozy acquiesced and decided to return the artifacts; however, the principle of inalienability thwarted his attempt. And after subsequent protests by librarians and curators from the library, Sarkozy’s solution was to propose a long-term loan that could be renewed every five years ad infinitum.

The likelihood of Macron clearing this hurdle is slim, though the restitution report does deal with the principle of inalienability. Sarr and Savoy suggest that France should make a bilateral agreement with the relevant country, thereby creating an obligation of France’s international relations that might override any domestic regulation. This recommendation is a little facetious as international obligations seldom trump the whims of domestic policymakers, and when they do, it’s because of legal enforcement from governance bodies like the United Nations and European Union. (And indeed, the report’s authors do site the UNESCO Convention as a guideline for handling post-1970 looted objects in French collections.) Currently, there’s no evidence that such a preexisting framework exists to override the inalienability principle in France.

The question of restitution has an undoubtedly political angle, one that Macron is deftly using to leverage foreign relations with African countries. By using repatriation as a good-faith gesture, the French president brings African and European countries to the table in Paris for discussion, thereby allowing France to lead the discussion on what belongs to whom, and what deals can be made in exchange.

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