Groundbreaking promise to return African cultural heritage in 5 years

French President Emmanuel Macron has stunned with a historic pledge to repatriate cultural heritage objects to Africa.

The announcement, made during Macron’s tour of Africa in November this year, is said to break with the rigid stance on restitution previously held by the President’s forebears. ‘This is the first time a French president has tackled the issue head-on and expressed his willingness for restitution’, French-Beninese art historian, Marie-Cecile Zinsou, wrote on her Facebook page after Macron addressed a crowd of students at a university in Ouagadougou. ‘The Ouagadougou speech may mark a major turning point in future proceedings’, Zinsou continued.

France removed thousands of cultural treasures from Benin, then called Dahomey, during colonial fighting between 1892-94. These included swords, statues and royal thrones many of which are now on display in French museums such as the Quai Branly in Paris as well as in private collections. French missionaries also removed cultural objects and “robbed communities of what they considered to be charms”, Irenee Zevounou, Benin’s ambassador to UNESCO, stated.

Benin has campaigned vigorously for the restitution of its treasures and requested their return in July 2016. Beninese President Patrice Talon lodged a formal request with the French foreign ministry in September this year. Macron’s announcement and his determination to see the conditions met for the return of the objects to Africa within five years departs from French legal tradition. According to the 1566 ‘Edict of Moulins’, objects held within the royal domain become inalienable and imprescriptible public property, which French monarchs and now the president of the republic are prohibited from disposing of.

Overcoming the principles of inalienability and imprescriptibility would require legal reform. Whether Macron can build upon the formal negotiations he has already initiated, engineer a change in the law and secure his promise to make repatriation of his priorities remains to be seen.

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