Three Laws Proposed by France’s Ministry of Culture May Lead to Groundbreaking Restitutions

Three laws intended to facilitate the restitution of contentious artworks and human remains held within France’s public collections are set to be proposed by politicians in the country.

The laws up for vote would make it possible to return artworks and human remains in the national collection without individual approval from the French parliament.

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The proposed laws are expected to address the return of human remains (an amended version of an earlier bill proposed by French senators last year), works belonging to Jewish families persecuted during the Nazi era, and the restitution of art objects, including those from the colonial era.

In its announcement, the French cultural ministry said that the second of those bills would be the first ever to offer the chance to legally acknowledge crimes committed against Jews by the French state during World War II.

Former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez is overseeing the bill regarding the restitution of art. His duties as France’s cultural heritage ambassador were suspended after he was charged with “complicity of gang fraud and laundering” in connection with antiquities trafficking. 

Within France, the restitution of objects belonging to African countries has taken on new precedence in the past few years. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to return African artifacts to the continent to ease relations with former French colonies. This pledge was followed up by the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, which estimated that France has roughly 90,000 African artifacts among its public museums.

Since Macron’s initial promise, 26 objects stolen from the ancient Palace of Abomey in Benin were restituted to the African country, one object was returned to Senegal, and another was placed on long-term loan to Madagascar. Compared to other European countries, however, France is behind on restitution.

“I hope 2023 will be a year of decisive progress for restitutions,” said French culture minister Rima Abdul Malak in her annual New Year speech on January 16. She added that the country’s approach to its history must be “neither one of denial nor of repentance, but one of recognition.”

Last year, senators Pierre Ouzoulias, Catherine Morin-Desailly, and Max Brisson proposed a bill that was unanimously approved by the senate to return human remains, but it was later blocked by members of Macron’s administration. The amended bill is expected to be put to a vote before June.

The new laws would include special committees comprised of scientific and legal experts with counterparts from respective countries requesting restitution. The group would determine if an object meets the criteria to remove it from France’s national collections. The administration would then decide, without parliament, whether or not to return an object.

The French government will also need to catalog objects and human remains of questionable provenance, the total number of which is currently unknown.

Even though there have been restitutions made to Jewish victims by the French state, as well as official recognition by former French president Jacques Chirac of the country’s antisemitic laws at the time, there has been no legal recognition by the French parliament of those wrongdoings.


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