1116 GMT March 31, 2020
African cultural heritage “should be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, Lagos, Cotonou”, Macron told a crowd of students at a university in Ouagadougou, citizen.co.za said.
“This will be one of my priorities. In five years, I want the conditions to be met to return African heritage to Africa.”
Delivered at the end of his speech, this sentence resonated especially in Benin, which in July last year called for France to return treasures taken during French colonial rule from the end of the 19th century.
President Patrice Talon — who railed against French influence in its former colony during the election campaign that brought him to power last year — made a formal request to France’s foreign ministry in September.
He said the repatriation of such treasures would allow people “to get to know better our cultural and historic assets” and also allow the tiny west African nation to develop tourism as “an important cornerstone of the Beninese economy”.
France ruled the country, then called Dahomey, until 1960, when it was granted independence and changed its name to Benin. Dahomey included the kingdom of the same name that dates back to about 1600.
France’s stockpiling of treasures from Dahomey happened during colonial fighting between 1892 and 1894, but it was also carried out by missionaries who “robbed communities of what they considered to be charms”, said Irenee Zevounou, Benin’s ambassador to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body in Paris.
Most of the artefacts have not been documented, but Zevounou said he believed 4,500 to 6,000 items are in France, including in private collections.
Many are now on display in French museums, including the Quai Branly in Paris, which exhibits indigenous art from around the world.
“This is the first time a French president has tackled the issue head-on and expressed his willingness for restitution,” Marie-Cecile Zinsou, creator of the Zinsou Foundation in Cotonou, wrote afterwards on her Facebook page.
“The Ouagadougou speech may mark a major turning point in future proceedings,” the French-Beninese art historian said.