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French President Declares Restitution of African Artworks a “Top Priority”

During a three-day trip to Africa, French president Emmanuel Macron declared that over the next five years of his term he will make the restitution of African cultural objects a “top priority.”

“I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” Macron told a group of students during a two-hour speech on Tuesday at the University of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

While some Africans view Macron’s stance on African heritage as a cause for celebration, many are critical of his words. The question remains: How can a large-scale restitution of artifacts be implemented?

In an interview with the Art Newspaper, Yves-Bernard Debie, a Brussels-based lawyer specializing in cultural property and trade, questioned whether such a plan was realistic.

Rachel King, a lecturer in cultural heritage studies at University College London, said to the New York Times, “We should pay attention to how national institutions like the Musée du Quai Branly, France’s pre-eminent ethnographic museum, proceeds with loaning or returning African objects to their countries of origin in the next few years.” The institution’s African art collection comprises more than seventy thousand works.

Despite the uncertainties of how France will move forward with its new commitment to returning African art, Macron’s statement marked the first time a leader of France has embraced restitution. In March, a group of lawmakers and civil servants penned a letter to former president François Hollande urging him to return artifacts that were taken from Benin during the twentieth century. Citing “the legal principles of inalienability and imprescriptibility” of France’s public collections, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the request.