Rabat – French President Emmanuel Macron said he wants to “return African heritage to Africa,” at the end of his inaugural speech at the University of Ouagadougou, building up Benin’s hopes of recovering its cultural heritage after months of negotiations with France.
“African heritage […] must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, Lagos, Cotonou,” said the French president, reported Agence France Presse (AFP).
The French president said that returning African art and historical artifacts currently in France to their rightful owners is one of his priorities. “Within five years, I want all the necessary conditions to be available so that African heritage is returned to Africa,” he said.
The declaration follows an official request for the return of Beninese heritage to Benin by the country’s president, Patrice Talon, in July 2016.
For President Talon, who has advocated against the influence of France on its former colony, the return of these works will “better inform our people the value of our cultural and historical assets” and enrich tourism, which is a major pillar of the Beninese economy .
Irénée Zevounou, the ambassador of Benin’s delegation to UNESCO, estimates that “4,500 to 6,000 Beninese cultural assets are in France, some of which are held in private collections,” reported the AFP.
“This is the first time a French president has addressed the issue head-on and expressed his willingness to go in the direction of restitution,” wrote Marie-Cecile Zinsou, creator of the contemporary art foundation Zinsou in Cotonou, on her Facebook page.
French authorities had initially refused to return their artistic holdings to Africa based on the “the legal principles of inalienability of public collections,” explains the AFP.
For Yves-Bernard Debie, a lawyer specializing in the law of art trade, Macron’s speech goes against French legal tradition established in 1566. “Such restitution would therefore require changing the French law,” he told the French press agency.
“It may be a little naive on my part, but I hope that relations would improve between France and its partners in Africa,” said Ousmane Aledji, director of the Benin cultural center Artisttik Africa.