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Rate of return – is France’s commitment to restitution waning?

4 January 2021

On 17 December, the National Assembly in France passed into law a bill allowing for the return of 26 artefacts to the Republic of Benin and one to Senegal within a year. Until now the items have been held in the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, respectively, and the passing of this law fulfils part of the promise the French president Emmanuel Macron has made to return African artefacts in French museums to their country of origin on either a temporary or permanent basis and within a five-year time frame.

This promise came in November 2017 in the second half of a very long speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkino Faso in which Macron declared the end of ‘Françafrique’ – the French strategy of exerting military, political and commercial influence over its former colonies on the continent – and the beginning of new forms of cooperation. (One of the most visible reminders of French influence is the CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro, guaranteed by the French treasury and used in a number of countries in West and Central Africa.) Macron had not come, he said, ‘to tell you what France’s policy for Africa should be, as some people may claim. Because there no longer is a French policy for Africa!’ He is the third French president in recent years to claim that Françafrique was over.

A few months after this speech, on the advice of his then culture adviser Claudia Ferrazzi, the French president commissioned a report on restitution from the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, which was published in November 2018. After assessing that 90 to 95 per cent of all material cultural heritage from sub-Saharan Africa is in Western collections, the authors called for the timely restitution of artefacts, which might, among other objectives, ‘institute a new relational ethics between peoples by helping to give back to them an impeded or blocked memory’. Soon after receiving the report, Macron promised the return of 26 ceremonial items to the Republic of Benin (which encompasses the former kingdom of Dahomey). These were objects taken in 1892 by the French colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds during the sacking of the Abomey Palace in the Dahomey capital and then offered to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, the forerunner of the Musée du Quai Branly. In July 2016, the Beninese minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Aurélien Agbénonci, had made an official request in writing for the return of objects seized during the French colonisation of Benin. In December that year, the request was rejected by the French government on the grounds of protecting the ‘inalienability’ of the country’s museum collections.

The bill that has passed is, however, miles away from Sarr and Savoy’s recommendation to create a general law allowing for the ‘restitution of cultural heritage items based on the foundation of a bilateral agreement of cultural cooperation with the formerly colonized countries, protectorates, or territories managed under French mandate’. During the parliamentary debate preceding the vote, there were signs of unease. In presenting the bill to the National Assembly, the minister delegate for foreign trade Franck Riester, replacing the current culture minister (who had to self-isolate after exposure to Covid-19), said: ‘This is not an act of repentance or reparation,’ an idea that was to be often repeated by deputies. ‘This is not about calling into question the universal mission of French museums,’ said Bruno Studer, an En Marche deputy. The artefacts to be returned to Benin were described as ‘coming from fighting in Abomey [and having been] intercepted during the fire of the royal palace, lit by Béhanzin, king of Abomey’. Later, when the bill was examined in the upper chamber, in an amendment later rejected by the National Assembly, senators insisted on replacing the words ‘restitution’ and ‘give back’ with ‘return’ and ‘transfer’.

It was made clear to parliamentarians that the 26 objects to be restituted to Benin are meant to be exhibited in the Musée de l’Épopée des Amazones et des Rois du Dahomey, which is currently being built on the site of the Abomey palace, with a loan of €20m from the French Development Agency (AFD). During the debate at the National Assembly, Jean-Paul Lecoq of the French Communist Party said: ‘There was a period when in our country it was believed we should engage in humanitarian meddling. We would even send the army to do this – remember Libya and its results. I wouldn’t like it if, under the excuse that works of art are universal and belong to the world’s heritage, someone dared to use cultural meddling to protect these works of art. Each country has sovereignty and when we give back a work of art to a country, we have to trust them.’

The art historian Emmanuelle Cadet runs Alter Natives, a Paris-based organisation that does long-term work with young French people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds and from African diasporas, encouraging them to access objects exhibited in museums (be it to question their origin or their presentation) – and feel more included in society in the process. ‘For us what’s important,’ says Cadet, ‘is that [restitutions] don’t remain a topic reserved for politicians and museum curators.’ Alter Natives began working on the specific contexts in which objects have been acquired after a group of young people it had taken to visit the African collections of the British Museum started asking questions about how the items on display had ended up there. It has also run projects in Benin and Senegal allowing young people to explore their relationship with objects in museums. ‘For many young [French] people, who’ve integrated Republican values, restitutions are a matter of justice. They don’t understand how France can hold on to objects that have been looted,’ Cadet says. ‘What matters to us is that a conversation about colonial history can happen,’ she adds.

There have been signs that parts of French society oppose widespread restitution and the conversations that this would require. Three days before the official presentation of the Sarr-Savoy report, the right-wing magazine Le Point published an article quoting leaked excerpts and stoking fears that whole museum departments would be ‘emptied’. Interviewed by Europe 1 radio, Stéphane Martin, then president of the Musée du Quai Branly, said that the report ‘[didn’t] like museums much’, adding that ‘museums shouldn’t be the hostages of the painful history of colonialism’. The gallerist Judith Schoffel de Fabry, writing in Le Journal de la Compagnie nationale des experts, said that the president had opened a Pandora’s box, before adding: ‘Each country will be entitled to claim its due, the Elgin Marbles, the Mona Lisa, the Luxor Obelisk…’ A fierce critic of the report, Didier Rykner, wrote in La Tribune de l’art: ‘We’d like to think that [the president of the republic] will be brave enough to do the only sensible thing that’s needed: throw the report straight into the bin.’

A journalist who covers relations between the Elysée and the African continent and doesn’t want to be named tells me: ‘We are a year and a half before the presidential election and for Macronistes there’s a fear the topic could antagonise a great deal of the right, a fairly reactionary bunch. The restitution to Benin and Senegal will take place. A general law would have scared to death a big part of the right.’ He says that if the publication of a dossier of items that should be restituted has been delayed, ‘it’s probably that a part of the French administration is against it, as the leak of the Sarr-Savoy report, which must have come from the culture ministry or the Quai d’Orsay [the foreign ministry], showed.’

‘You can’t restitute and lie about history,’ says Thomas Bouli, the coordinator of a small Nantes-based organisation called Afrique Loire. The architect, who was born in Cameroon, became a reluctant activist after he realised that the natural history museum in Nantes holds skulls acquired during the siege of the Béhanzin palace. In March 2019, Afrique Loire members interrupted an auction in the city, claiming the objects had been looted from Benin by the French army. After the intervention of the Beninese embassy and the French culture ministry, 40 objects were withdrawn. The Sarr-Savoy report did not touch on the subject of private collections and speaking of the law that has just passed, Bouli says: ‘We have to keep that door open. It feels like they’re closing it.’

Gabin Djimassé, a Beninese historian of the Vodun religion and of the culture of the kingdom of Dahomey, objects to the phrasing presented to French legislators: ‘It makes it sound like the objects were salvaged by Dodds, but many objects were taken by members of the court so they wouldn’t fall into the invaders’ hands.’ In addition, he explains, the looting wasn’t carried out by Dodds alone, and wasn’t limited to that day. There are many other objects that Djimassé would like to see return, among which is a statue of Gu, the Vodun god of war and of the forge, which is currently exhibited in the Louvre’s Pavillon des Sessions. It is one of the objects that the Republic of Benin asked for in 2016, without success.

In Dakar, the curator Wagane Gueye is planning an exhibition about restitution, a subject which, he says, was explored to great effect by the Senegalese collective Laboratoire Agit’Art. He says that restitutions matter particularly to younger generations who are ‘trying to get rid of the somehow polluted links of colonisation and are not looking exclusively towards Paris’. Gueye believes the idea of restitution has been, for Macron, ‘a very diplomatic way of avoiding real debates, which are about France’s economic and geopolitical presence in Senegal’ and include the topic of the CFA franc, France’s military presence on Senegal’s soil, and France’s increasingly hostile immigration policies. ‘People dying in the sea, that’s the most pressing issue at the moment,’ Gueye says.

Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, receiving the sword of El Hadj Omar Saidou Tall from Édouard Philippe, then prime minister of France, in Dakar in November 2019. Photo: Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images

On 17 November 2019, Édouard Philippe, then prime minister of France, formally handed to Senegal’s president Macky Sall a sword that is said to have belonged to El Hadj Omar Saidou Tall (c. 1797–1864), the West African leader who founded the Toucouleur empire that encompassed much of what is currently Guinea, Senegal, and Mali. The sword is on a five-year loan to the recently opened Musée des Civilisations Noires in Dakar and its ‘return’ to Senegal is a point of contention in Mali, where the Toucouleur capital was located, and where the sword is believed to have been seized. Philippe, who was just about to sign an important arms contract with Senegal, said he had a particular relationship to swords and also owned an officer’s sword, which had followed him in every new office. ‘It was very childish,’ says Gueye, ‘not very respectful.’

The academics Saskia Cousin, Anne Doquet and Alexandra Galitzine-Loumpet coordinate a research project called Retours, about what the return of objects means in Benin, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal and for their diasporas. They write, over email: ‘Whether one agrees or not with its conclusions, the Sarr-Savoy report has become unavoidable in the academic and the political field. […] Its recommendations no doubt surprised and disappointed those who had commissioned it, but it has become an essential part of the debate on restitutions, one showing a change of direction.’

Sarr and Savoy recommended that inventories of the pieces held in French museums be sent to the countries corresponding to the colonial territories the pieces came from, but according to the Retours scholars: ‘In Mali, agents from museums and cultural institutions regret never having been contacted by “France” to start a joint reflection on objects to be restituted. Their knowledge of Malian objects in the Quai Branly comes from a 3-volume list that they have been handed by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr.’ Mali has been facing a major crisis since 2012, with insurrections in the north and centre, the presence of a 14-000-strong UN peacekeeping force and a military coup in August 2020 that has been followed by the election of an interim president by an interim legislature. In such a context, ‘in Mali, the question of restitutions hasn’t assumed the same importance as in other African countries, but […] could find relevance as part of a rising anti-French sentiment.’

Ogun (2016), Théodore Dakpogan.

Ogun (2016), Théodore Dakpogan. Photo: Saskia Cousin

Théodore Dakpogan is a Beninese artist who lives in Adjarra, close to the Nigerian border. A former blacksmith whose work is inspired by 19th-century Fon sculpture and who often makes objects for Vodun priests, Dakpogan considers himself lucky to have been able to see pieces from his homeland exhibited in French museums when he travels for work. He says many Beninese are not aware these exist, a situation he hopes will change if some return.

Speaking of the artefacts requested by the Republic of Benin, Dakpogan says: ‘They are objects people have used to pray, a part of us that is missing. That’s what prompted me to make my one-armed Gu.’ Unlike the sculpture exhibited at the Louvre, Dakpogan’s god doesn’t hold a sword. ‘Everyone sees Gu as being threatening,’ the artist says, ‘because he holds this sword, but you can make him help you – if you feed him something he’s not supposed to eat and say, it’s Jacques, Pierre or Paul who’s offering you this, he’ll act really fast and have them bewitched. When you want to make your way through a bush you need a blade, don’t you? Gu opens your way so that you find happiness on your way.’

As for the objects awaiting restitution, Dakpogan says: ‘They are alive. They still retain their power. They are coming back.’

From the January 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the French Senate had voted unanimously for the passing of the bill, which was true when the piece went to press. It has been updated to reflect the fact that on a second reading the Senate voted against the bill, a vote that was overridden by the National Assembly on 17 December.

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