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France looks at law for returning colonial-era artefacts

PARIS (The Southern African Times) — The French government presented a draft law Wednesday that would enable France to return certain cultural artefacts taken from African countries during the colonial era.

The law, which will go to parliament for consideration, centers on the transfer of ownership of several African objects, including a saber loaned to Senegal last year.

Now-former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented the sword to Senegalese President Macky Sall in November in Dakar. French media have described the saber as a historically significant weapon that belonged to associates of El Hadj Omar Tall, a 19th century military leader and Muslim scholar who ruled a short-lived empire

2018 following a report he commissioned from academic researchers. The new legislation stipulates that these objects must be given back within one year from when the law goes into effect.

France also pledged to return 26 objects that French colonial troops looted in 1892 from a royal palace in the West African nation of Benin and were kept at the Musee Branly-Jacques-Chirac in Paris. The proposed law centers only on these objects from Benin and Senegal.

Museums such as Paris’ Louvre and London’s British Museum have vociferously opposed laws that would require them to send cultural artifacts back to their countries of origin, arguing that such policies would empty Western museums.

But critics of the West’s colonial-era collections have welcomed Macron’s incremental move. Françoise Verges, a scholar on questions of culture, race and colonization, is waiting for way more.

“There’s a huge, much larger work of restitution that remains to be done,” she told The Associated Press. She points to the 2018 state-commissioned study which counted at least 90 000 African works remaining in French museums.

Verges also questions to what extent restitution will take place with acknowledgement of French colonialism. The wording of the draft bill calls the works “gifts” from generals, which Verges says it a euphemism.

“The question is how much these restitutions will contribute to repairing and not an erasure,” she said.

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