An interesting debate has taken place in France between its two chambers of Parliament: the Senate and the National Assembly. It has arisen in the context of a Bill presented at the National Assembly on 16 July to restitute to the countries of Benin and Senegal a total of 27 items held within French public collections. As we know, such a ‘special’ law is needed because French collections are inalienable under French law and so no museum has the power to simply return an object from its collection to a country of origin. Nor for that matter does the President of the Republic.
The return, which has been in discussion for some two years, is not in itself controversial. Both houses of Parliament have agreed to it in principle. The disagreement lies elsewhere. Through the text of the Bill, the French Senate has proposed the creation of a National Council on restitution, a body that would provide advice and recommendations surrounding restitution claims relating more generally to objects of non-European origin in French collections. Already this steps well beyond the bounds of the original text, which was very clearly limited to those 27 items. But the Senators were undaunted: they have unanimously supported the creation of the Council and on Tuesday voted to reject the National Assembly’s version of the Bill, which did not include any reference to the Council. But today the National Assembly voted to push through its original draft of the law, something it is able to do under French constitutional rules. As a result we will see those returns take place within the next year.
The Senate showed its disapproval of President Macron’s approach to restitution. From reports and debates, the Senators took the view that the handling of restitution claims on a ‘case by case’ basis by the Elysée Palace lacked transparency and consistency. They pointed to last month’s return via long-term loan of a royal crown to Madagascar (right) taken by France over a century ago as a notably opaque example, where the executive’s decision hadn’t been preceded by debate or discussion. It is felt that a National Council would provide a forum for experts to discuss and advise on such issues, rather than having final decisions made out-of-the-blue from on high.
This is in keeping with a more general criticism of Macron’s techniques in the cultural field. Just last month, for example, a decree was issued to overstep environmental regulations in order for stone quarries to be utilised in the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral after the devastating fire of April 2019. According to a critique in La Tribune de l’Art, this dismissal of French administrative norms is typical of Macron, and was only necessary to meet an overly ambitious five-year timetable to complete the restoration, a timetable that Macron himself had set.
So it seems the President has a track record of making grand promises to achieve political goals, committing to unrealistic deadlines to keep those promises, then running roughshod over the legal order in order to meet expectations. Perhaps it’s no wonder the Senate wanted to rein him in on restitution. But the National Assembly – which is controlled by Macron’s own party La République en Marche! – is having none of it, and today firmly rejected the proposal for a Council and reaffirmed the case-by-case approach to restitution.
And so, barring a catastrophe, the restitution of these items to Benin and Senegal will take place before the end of 2021. But can restitution always occur in this way: driven by the executive’s political interests, and in each case requiring that a special law be passed by the French parliament? In a country like France, which prides itself on the cultural value of its public collections, such decisions are perhaps best made after an open and representative body of experts has opined on a number of factors: provenance, care requirements, sacred and spiritual nature of a work, etc. Then again, that starts to sound like a very time-consuming process. And if we know one thing about Macron it’s that he doesn’t like bureaucracy.