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France returns 26 looted treasures and works of art to Benin

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France has handed back 26 royal treasures and works of art looted from its former colony of Benin, in part fulfilment of a promise by President Emmanuel Macron four years ago to forge a new relationship with Africa.

In a ceremony at the Elysée Palace on Tuesday, Roselyne Bachelot and Jean-Michel Abimbola, culture ministers of the two countries, signed an agreement to transfer ownership of a royal throne, statues of kings and other objects to Benin after 130 years in France.

France, like other colonial powers such as Britain, has struggled for decades with the questions of whether and how to return the spoils of war to the places from which they were taken.

Patrice Talon, Benin’s president, was in Paris to witness the handover and expressed his country’s gratitude to Macron, but he also said the return of the 26 artefacts was “just the first stage”. 

He added: “How can you expect my enthusiasm to be complete when works such as the [image of the] god Gou and the Fâ divination tablet are still held here in France, to the detriment of their real owners?”

Macron called the ceremony “a symbolic moment, moving and historic, which was so long awaited and unexpected”. 

Six months after he was elected in 2017, Macron gave a speech at the University of Ouagadougou in the west African state of Burkina Faso in which he declared the end of “Françafrique”, the old French strategy of exerting military, political and commercial influence over its former colonies.

French troops today remain bogged down in anti-Islamist operations in the Sahel, but France has now made a first step in implementing Macron’s pledge on cultural heritage.

Among other promises, Macron said in Ouagadougou that he wanted “the conditions to be right in five years for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa . . . [It] can be displayed in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou — that will be one of my priorities.”

Among the objects from the 18th and 19th century kingdom of Abomey, known at the time in Europe as Dahomey, to be flown back on Wednesday for display in Benin are the throne of King Ghézo and a totemic statue of King Béhanzin as half-man, half-fish, looted by French colonial troops when they sacked the royal palace in 1892. They have been on display at the Quai Branly Jacques Chirac museum in Paris.

Emmanuel Kasarhérou, the museum’s president, said in an interview with the Libération newspaper that he was a little nostalgic about losing artefacts that had been almost constantly on display since they were received by the Trocadero ethnographic museum in 1895.

But he added: “It is no longer acceptable at an institution like ours to present to the public objects acquired in a context of violence.” 

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