The French repatriation of African art is once again at the forefront of much discussion and debate in France, after four activists were recently fined for removing an African artifact from a Parisian museum in June. French museums hold about 90,000 pieces of African art and other artifacts that were seized or looted decades to centuries ago, during France’s colonial presence in Africa. Talk of repatriation and restitution of many of these items came to public attention in 2017, after French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to make art reparations a key goal of his during a speech in Burkina Faso. However, since that speech, only one item has been returned. The four activists that attempted to remove the African artifact this past June are members of a pan-African activism group and still assert that the item belongs in Africa, and that they were not stealing the item from the French government itself. Debates have sprung up since the crime, with some French citizens believing that repatriation is necessary and others maintaining that the 100,000 African items belong to France and must stay there.
In his 2017 speech in the capital of Burkina Faso, Macron explained that “there are no valid justifications [for the presence of copious African cultural items in France] that are durable and unconditional,” admitting that “African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.” French academics of art history, African culture, and others supported his plans and apparent commitment to restitution. Recognizing the troubling colonial past of France in the African region, they felt that it was a step in the right direction for improving any lasting tensions from the colonial period as well as French-African relations. Conversely, many museum curators and directors were immediately opposed to Macron’s plans. For example, the President of Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (which holds the majority of the African pieces in France) Stéphane Martin, worried for his museum’s stock being emptied, stated that repatriation “cannot be the only way, otherwise we will empty European museums.”
Three years later, it is concerning how little progress has been made on what Macron stated was one of his highest priorities. Though an extensive report was commissioned by Macron shortly after his original speech in 2017 to draft a plan of restitution to African countries, only one item has been returned out of almost 100,000, and the subject of reparations has barely been refreshed since. It reflects poorly upon France and the French government, particularly President Macron, that no positive change has been made – especially in a time of racial injustice and tension in France and around the world.
Though a detailed plan was created for Macron and explained possible ways to repatriate the African cultural items throughout France, there are some legal setbacks that will make it difficult to officially return most of the artifacts. Within the French constitution is a rule that any public art held in France is inalienable, and therefore cannot be removed from the country. This principle, created centuries ago and maintained today, can absolutely hold Macron back from officially returning artifacts. Since the vast majority of the cultural artifacts are housed in French public collections and public museums, they are not allowed to be ceded to other countries indefinitely. However, the plan drafted for Macron took this into account, and suggested other partial repatriation methods such as loaning items to be housed in their countries of origin but ultimately owned by the French.
Clearly, looking at how the past few years of the Macron administration have gone, it is unclear if any concrete progress will be made on restitution between France and African countries. However, the discussion and debate over restitution as a whole that has sprung up after the demonstration of the four French-African activists months ago is progress itself. Hopefully they will continue on and enact real change in African-French relations, starting with repatriation.
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