French Parliament adopts law on restitution of human remains to foreign states

The three skulls from the ancient Sakalave kingdom of Madagascar, like the remains of Australian aborigines now kept at the Museum of Man in Paris, will soon be able to return to their lands of origin

French Parliament adopts law on restitution of human remains to foreign states

The three skulls from the ancient Sakalave kingdom of Madagascar, like the remains of Australian aborigines now kept at the Museum of Man in Paris, will soon be able to return to their lands of origin. With the vote of senators on Monday, December 18, Parliament definitively adopted the bill on the restitution to foreign states of human remains belonging to French public collections.

“This is an important moment for our relations with people who have been waiting a long time to be able to give a dignified burial to their ancestors,” rejoices centrist senator Catherine Morin-Desailly, at the origin of the law with two other elected officials from the upper house, Pierre Ouzoulias (Communist Party) and Max Brisson (Les Républicains). It is also a “moment of emotion” for the former cultural advisor of Rouen, whose city was the first to deliberate in 2006 on the restitution of a Maori head present in local collections in New Zeeland.

It was the State's refusal to let the Norman museum dispose of this piece which was the starting point of this patient work which resulted in the text voted on Monday. Its adoption is an additional step in the implementation of the larger project aimed at facilitating the retrocession of collection pieces acquired by French museums under conditions now considered unacceptable: war trophies, looting, theft, desecration of graves, etc.

On this occasion it is also a question of engaging in reflection and memory work. In July, a first law concerning the restitution of cultural property stolen from Jews in the context of anti-Semitic persecutions from 1933 to 1945 was already passed. In 2024, the government's latest bill dealing with works acquired during colonization is expected to be presented to Parliament.

Acceleration of query processing

Thanks to the law adopted on Monday, it will no longer be necessary, as was the case until now, to obtain authorization from Parliament with the vote of an ad hoc law for each file for the restitution of bodies or parts. of body. A general exemption from the principle of inalienability of public collections is introduced into the heritage code which will allow the State and the local authorities concerned to act by simple decree in the Council of State. Processing of requests should be accelerated.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, only four requests have in fact been able to be investigated: that filed in 2002 from South Africa concerning Saartjie Baartman, a Koisan woman, reduced to slavery and exhibited in Europe under the name of Hottentot Venus. The same year, Uruguay recovered the remains of the Charrua Indian, Vaimaca Peru, purchased by France in 1832.

Human dignity

In 2012, twenty Maori heads were returned to New Zealand, then in 2020, twenty-four skulls were returned to Algeria as part of a five-year deposit agreement. A situation which will have to be regularized with the new law.

Several conditions are set to judge the admissibility of a request: it must be filed by a foreign State and for exclusively funeral purposes. The “remains” must be those of people who died after the year 1500 and the “conditions of their collection offend human dignity or their conservation contravene respect for the culture and traditions of the group from which they originate” specifies the law. In the event of doubt about the identification of the claimed remains, a scientific committee composed equally of experts from France and the requesting country will be responsible for informing the decision of the Ministry of Culture, which will ultimately make the decision.

“Soothe painful memories”

The Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul-Malak welcomed a balanced law “between the guarantee of the principle of inalienability and the ethical management of public collections. (…) Respect for human dignity drives this law. France faces its history. She hears the requests of other peoples and wishes to open new cultural exchanges with them by having contributed to soothing painful memories.

The minister also committed to launching a parliamentary mission at the start of 2024 on the restitution of human remains from overseas territories. “They could not have their place in this law but we make them our priority,” she promised, setting a year to provide a solution.

On Monday, representatives of the Kalina Indians of Guyana attended the debate in the Senate. They are demanding the return of the bodies of eight of their ancestors who died in 1892 after being exhibited in human zoos in Paris and listed in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. This one has around 24,000 “human remains”. About 7% are from Africa and 5% from overseas. Only a hundred have been precisely identified by scientists, which sums up another issue of the law. To achieve its true implementation, it will be necessary to provide museums with the means to make a thorough inventory of their collections.