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‘Done on the sly’: France’s flawed return of skulls to Algeria

The remains, part of one of Europe’s biggest skull collections at the Musée de l’Homme, or Museum of Mankind, in Paris, were presented by the Algerian government as “resistance fighters,” national heroes in Algeria for their sacrifice in chasing out French colonisers.

A painting by artist Jean-Adolphe Beauc depicts the battle of Zaatcha, a village that French troops violently crushed in 1849. (via The New York Times)

Written by Constant Méheut

When the French government returned — and Algeria accepted — the skulls of 24 people taken as trophies during France’s brutal colonial rule, both nations celebrated the powerful gesture as a milestone in their efforts to rebuild ties.

The remains, part of one of Europe’s biggest skull collections at the Musée de l’Homme, or Museum of Mankind, in Paris, were presented by the Algerian government as “resistance fighters,” national heroes in Algeria for their sacrifice in chasing out French colonisers.

As recently as this month, when France’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, arrived in Algiers for a two-day visit, her Algerian counterpart, Aymen Benabderrahmane, expressed his satisfaction with the repatriation, which took place in 2020.

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But documents from the museum and the French government, which were recently obtained by The New York Times, show that while six of the skulls returned were those of resistance fighters, the rest were not or were of uncertain origin. And all have remained France’s property even after they were handed over. Neither government has publicly acknowledged those facts as they seek to wring diplomatic benefit from the restitution.

The flawed return, whatever its intention, has instead emerged as an example of what several French academics and lawmakers say is a broader problem of often secretive, muddled and politically expedient repatriations by France that have fallen short of ambitions to right colonial-era wrongs.

“Diplomatic matters prevailed over historical matters,” said Catherine Morin-Dessailly, a center-right French senator who has long worked on restitutions of remains. “It was botched, done on the sly.”

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Algeria’s government did not respond to requests for comment, and it remains unclear why it accepted some skulls that were not those of resistance fighters, especially as it has been strongly critical of aspects of President Emmanuel Macron of France’s policy toward the country, at least until a recent thaw.

Macron’s office declined to comment, redirecting questions to the Foreign Ministry, which said that the list of the returned skulls had been “approved by the two parties.”

Indeed, the bones were returned under an agreement signed by both governments on June 26, 2020, that included a four-page appendix detailing the remains’ identities. Among them, the document obtained by the Times showed, were imprisoned thieves and three Algerian infantrymen who actually served in the French army.

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At a time when France is trying to reshape its relationship with Africa, in part through commitments to repatriate colonial-era artworks and remains, some academics and legislators have grown increasingly concerned over restitutions that seem to escape scientific and legislative rigor.

The French Foreign Ministry said that the government planned to work on a sweeping law to regulate future returns. But Macron’s parliamentary majority rejected a proposal by senators to establish a scientific advisory council on restitutions. The government has yet to examine a bill to facilitate the return of remains, which was passed by the Senate in January. And Macron’s coalition in Parliament did not endorse a bill, put forward last week by a leftist lawmaker, to return all of the Algerian skulls.

Senators, along with several scholars, cited an ornament recently returned to Madagascar, which, similar to Algeria, did not gain full ownership of the item because of the absence of a law. They also pointed to a 19th-century sword handed back to Senegal and to statues and thrones returned to Benin under similarly cloudy circumstances.

A Senate report said that those restitutions had been carried out “under great opacity, giving the impression that diplomatic matters outweighed everything else.”

The scale of the problem remains largely obscured, particularly when it comes to human remains; the Museum of Mankind has nearly 18,000 remains from around the world.

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A confidential report produced by the museum in 2018, obtained by the Times, confirmed that it held hundreds of “potentially litigious” remains that could be requested in the future.

They include bones belonging to the wife of the founder of the 19th-century Toucouleur Empire of West Africa, remains of a Sudanese warlord who ruled over part of Chad in the 1890s, and the bones of a family of Canadian Inuits exhibited in a “human zoo” in Paris in 1881.

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“It’s the skeleton in the closet,” Pierre Ouzoulias, a French senator from the Communist Party, said. “No one knows how to get out of this.”

The existence of the Algerian skulls first came to light in the early 2010s, when Ali Farid Belkadi, an Algerian historian, started researching at the Museum of Mankind.

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Dated from early human history to the 20th century, the museum’s skulls were collected during archaeological digs and colonial campaigns, and were once prized by scientists exploring racial differences. They include dozens of West African tribal chiefs, Native Americans and Cambodian rebels.

Belkadi discovered that the museum still had skulls of resistance fighters and civilians beheaded during France’s 19th-century conquest of Algeria. Kept in cardboard boxes, they included resistance leaders from the battle of Zaatcha, a village that French troops violently crushed in 1849. The heads were displayed on poles and later taken back to France as war trophies.

Belkadi described the find as a “monstrous discovery, which spoke volumes about colonial barbarism.”

He and others campaigned for years for the repatriation of the fighters’ remains. In 2017, after Algerian authorities said that they wanted them back, Macron announced that he had approved “the restitution of the Algerian martyrs’ skulls.” A French-Algerian committee was set up to identify the remains that could be returned.

It was a key step in Macron’s efforts to reconcile with Algeria through symbolic acts of recognition of French colonial crimes.

But it also meant stepping onto sensitive ground.

Unlike other countries, such as Germany, France has never articulated a clear policy regarding its collections of colonial-era remains, according to the Senate report. Only about 20 sets of remains have been returned over the past two decades, to countries such as South Africa or New Zealand, after years of stiff resistance.

Part of the reason is that objects in French public collections are considered France’s property and cannot change ownership unless the return is voted into law — a cumbersome and time-consuming process.

But Klara Boyer-Rossol, a historian who has studied remains from Madagascar, said that despite recent efforts for more transparency, the skull collections at the Museum of Mankind were kept under “a certain opacity” out of fear that research could open the floodgates for restitution requests and cast a harsh light on France’s colonial legacy.

The committee on returning the skulls to Algeria started working against that fraught background in late 2018. By June 2020, it had identified 24 that could be sent back, out of a total of 45 dating from French colonisation.

But the research was cut short by Macron’s office, which wanted the skulls returned by July 5, Algeria’s Independence Day. Macron was about to give a more ambitious push to his rapprochement efforts with Algeria by commissioning a report addressing colonial-era grievances and apparently hoped to persuade Algeria’s president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to collaborate.

“There are political stakes that are beyond our control,” said Christine Lefèvre, a top official at the National Museum of Natural History, which overviews the Museum of Mankind. “It’s clear they’re not all fighters,” she acknowledged, referring to the remains.

Ouzoulias, the French senator, said that Macron had needed to give an olive branch to Algeria. “There were the skulls. He used them for that,” he said.

Even as French and Algerian authorities knew of the skulls’ questionable origins, they kept that information silent. France called the return a gesture of “friendship” and Algeria said that the two countries were moving toward “appeased relations.”

The agreement said that the remains had been loaned to Algeria “for a period of five years,” pending a proper restitution enshrined in law, which still does not exist.

First published on: 18-10-2022 at 10:41 IST
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