France, Subsharan Africa, cultural property


France’s colonialism over Subsharan Africa until the 1960s has had persistant psychological and material consequences. Amongst them is the lingering presence of a significant amount of African objects in French museum collections. In the last five years, Subsaharan African countries have reiterated their desire to receive parts of these collections. Through their “restitution requests,” they identify themselves as the objects’ legitimate owners and claim to have been robbed of their cultural property during colonialism.

The exact conditions under which each Subsaharan artifact arrived on French grounds—whether through theft, donations, sales, or looting—remain unsettled. Even where thefts can be proven, they occurred at a time where colonialism was approved by international law. The French government’s recent favorable responses to African restitution requests might have concluded this debate had France’s national heritage not been protected by the five-century old inalienability principle, which prohibits the transfer of any property out of France’s public domain, including the Subsaharan objects in its public museum collections.

This Note studies these legal difficulties and proposes a solution based on France’s international duty to promote African culture as a human right. Rather than amending the fundamental inalienability rule, this Note calls for the creation of a legislative commission that will study individual requests in the respect of French legislations, international conventions, national objectives, and world heritage.