During a late November tour of various African nations by French President Emmanuel Macron, the young and progressive leader made an unexpected announcement from Burkina Faso, where he delivered a lecture before students at the University of Ouagadougou. President Macron spoke about post-colonial issues in the areas of immigration, development and economy, and he underscored his intention of returning African artifacts currently held by French museums and private collectors.
The announcement by President Macron was largely unexpected despite previous calls by President Patrice Talon of Benin urging the French Foreign Ministry to look into the potential of returning archaeological artifacts to his nation, which is currently betting on its burgeoning tourism industry as a path to development. The speech by the French President was a positive highlight of his African tour, which was met with protests and even violence as a grenade was lobbed at French soldiers deployed to Burkina Faso in support of Operation Barkhane. The grenade attack took place while President Macron was in the country, and it ended up injuring three civilians.
President Macron acknowledged that his country holds a significant portion of African heritage; in the case of Benin, for example, it is estimated that more than 5,000 pieces were taken by colonial forces as French rule came to an end prior to 1960. This estimate does not include items that were illegally taken from Benin’s archaeological record by members of the French Foreign Legion, missionaries, tomb raiders, relic hunters, nighthawks, and smugglers.
In the past, French law enforcement agents have acted quickly to repatriate artifacts seized from smugglers who deal in pre-Columbian artifacts; these items have been returned to Central American nations. In the context of what President Macron wants to do now, certain laws will have to be changed since the items he would like to see returned to Africa are considered to be sovereign property of the French Republic.
Now that France has taken a position that would not have been taken during previous administrations, President Macron will have to flex his political muscle to interpret the Edict of Moulins, which would grant him rare powers to order the return of artifacts. Archaeologists are calling for the intervention of the United Nations Human Rights Council as a mediator between France and the African nations that expect the return of artifacts, which range from pottery to weapons and from crowns to thrones. There is no question that this will be an ambitious and complicated plan since the items will have to be located and cataloged before ownership can be transferred; however, President Macron has stated that he has five years to work on this effort.