The French Senate has blocked a highly anticipated bill that would return 27 colonial-era artefacts in museum collections to Benin and Senegal, after the two houses of Parliament clashed over the terms of the new law. The dispute further delays President Emmanuel Macron’s landmark 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 compel France to return 26 royal artefacts plundered in 1892 by French troops from the palace of Abomey in present-day Benin, currently held at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, as well as the sword of a west African military commander, which is already on loan to the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar from France’s Army Museum. New laws are needed to remove individual objects from French museum collections because of a 16th-century legal principle that considers national heritage “inalienable”.
Although the National Assembly and the Senate both unanimously approved the bill on its first reading, a joint committee of senators and deputies failed to reach an agreement on the final wording last month. The impasse centres on the Senate’s call for a national council that would advise the government on restitution claims and regulate similar legal procedures in the future. Deputies rejected the proposal, as well as the Senate’s request that the term “restitution” in the draft law be replaced with the more neutral wording “return”.
The Senate’s subsequent motion to oppose the bill on 15 December was tabled by centrist Catherine Morin Desailly, the head of the upper house’s fact-finding committee on the issue of restitution. In a press conference yesterday, she doubled down on the proposal for a national restitution council. “We must establish a democratic, transparent and scientific method [of restitution] which clarifies political decision-making,” she said.