French Senate and government oppose restitution

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UPDATE: France will return 27 objects from the colonial era to museums in Benin and Senegal within a year, following a unanimous vote by the National Assembly on December 17.

CORRECTION: This article incorrectly stated that the French Senate had blocked the restitution bill. The Senate approved the renditions, but added an amendment to the bill which the government refused. The National Assembly has the power to override the Senate, as it did on December 17 by passing the restitution bill. The article also mistakenly confused the Senate’s decision on the December 15 bill with its separate submission of a background report on the issue of restitution on December 16. The article has been updated to correct these errors.

The French Senate clashed with the government over a long-awaited bill that would return 27 colonial-era art objects to Benin and Senegal in museum collections, after both Houses of Parliament n ‘disagreed on the terms of the new law. The dispute comes more than three years after President Emmanuel Macron’s historic commitment in 2017 to ensure the “temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa” before his mandate expires in 2022.

If passed, the bill would oblige France to return 26 royal objects looted in 1892 by French troops from the Abomey Palace in present-day Benin, currently in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris, as well as as the sword of a West African military commander, which is already on loan to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar by the Musée de l’Armée de France. New laws are needed to remove individual objects from French museum collections due to a 16th century legal principle that considers national heritage “inalienable”.

Although the National Assembly and the Senate both approved the bill unanimously at first reading, a joint committee of senators and deputies failed to come to an agreement on the final wording last month. The division centered on the Senate’s call for a national council that would advise the government on restitution claims and regulate similar legal proceedings in the future. MPs rejected the proposal, as well as the Senate’s request to replace the term “restitution” in the bill with the more neutral wording “return”.

On December 15, the Senate refused to pass the bill at second reading. The centrist Catherine Morin Desailly, president of the senatorial committee on culture which supported the proposal for an advisory council on restitution, declared that “there is no need to further debate this text on which we do not we will not be able to agree ”.

Morin Desailly and other senators denounced the government’s recent decision to return the crown of Madagascar’s last queen, Ranavalona III, in the form of a long-term loan from the Musée de l’Armée de France via diplomatic channels, bypassing the Parliament. The loan deal came with France’s promise to initiate legislation allowing for the permanent restitution of the crown to its former colony, meaning a new bill will have to be approved by parliament, and so on. continuation for each new restitution. The Malagasy authorities had requested the return of the crown in February to mark the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence.

On December 16, during a press conference presenting other Senate proposals on the issue of restitution, Morin Desailly declared: “We must establish a democratic, transparent and scientific method. [of restitution] which clarifies political decision-making. It is a “dangerous process”, she said, if a head of state “removes objects from French collections as diplomatic gifts”.

The Senate commission of inquiry made 15 recommendations, including a greater tour of French public collections, the digitization of non-Western art and the training of museum professionals in requesting countries.

The committee also recommended the adoption of a law allowing the restitution of 7,000 human remains from more than 60 French public collections. The Senate intends to discuss a new bill on the restitution process in January.


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