Algeria draws up a first list of cultural property to be returned by France

Algeria. In a spirit of political appeasement, the French and Algerian presidents created in August 2022 a commission of five French historians and five Algerian historians to find solutions to the memorial impasse between the two countries. Co-chaired by Benjamin Stora and Mohamed Lahcen Zeghidi, this commission was born from the “Algiers Declaration for a renewed partnership between France and Algeria”, signed during Emmanuel Macron's trip in August 2022. After several months of waiting, the commission began its work in spring 2023, in a context of recurring requests for restitution from Algeria. Apart from a few personal items of Emir Abdelkader, Algeria had not published a detailed list of claimed property. At the end of May, the commission made public the list drawn up by Algerian historians, intended to “to concretize the strong desire to take into account all the dimensions of the history of the colonial period” according to the press release. Unsurprisingly, many goods that belonged to Abdelkader appear there, because this first list concerns the 19th century. Emir Abdelkader is a key figure in Algerian resistance to French colonization from 1830, and he has been made a hero by the Algerian government since independence.

The Consular (also named Baba Merzoug), at the Brest arsenal. This 12-ton cannon had protected the harbor of Algiers since the 16th century.

Algeria is therefore requesting the restitution of around a hundred items of property, including Abdelkader's command tent, his saber, his pistol, his ring and his personal copy of the Koran. These objects are kept at the Army Museum and the Condé Museum in Chantilly, where the Duke of Aumale brought his loot after his victory against Abdelkader in 1847. Certain pieces from Abdelkader's “smala” (his family, his guards and his close advisors) are also requested by Algeria from the MUCEM (Marseille). The list also includes documents, including Abdelkader's account books and military regulations, or the inventory of his troops. These are distributed between the Condé Museum, the Historical Service of the Armies (Vincennes) and the National Library of France. Algeria finally demands the return of the “Baba Merzoug” cannon taken by French troops in Algiers in 1830 and erected in a column in the port of Brest in 1833: this cannon is one of the objects that Stora already suggested returning to Algeria in its 2021 report.

It now remains for French historians to discuss this list next July, but the decision will fall to Emmanuel Macron and Parliament. President Tebboune's official trip to France was postponed to September 2024 due to these unresolved memorial issues. Tebboune does not seem ready to give in on restitution: during a speech on May 7, he declared “memory cannot be the subject of concessions or compromise” adding that he expected France “a fair treatment of historical truth”. The third text of the law on restitutions in the colonial context is still pending.

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