French Senate approves plan to return looted Jewish artworks

The French senate is set to approve on Tuesday the return of 15 artworks looted from Jews during World War II, as part of efforts by the government to accelerate restitution.

French Senate approves plan to return looted Jewish artworks
Works held in museums including the Musee d'Orsay are covered by the bill. Photo by PIERRE VERDY / AFP)

The vote authorises public museums holding the works, including the world-famous Musee d’Orsay in Paris, to hand over the property to the heirs of the original owners.

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot called the move “historic”, adding that it was the first time in 70 years that the French government had made serious steps to return artworks “that were acquired in troubling circumstances during the occupation because of anti-Semitic persecution.”

She called the legislation a “first stage” in returning objects that “are still being conserved in public collections — objects that ought not, and should never have been there.”

The bill cleared the lower house of parliament in late January and now requires approval by the Senate and the signature of President Emmanuel Macron to enter into force.

Thousands of paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists were looted or forcibly acquired during the Nazi occupation of France and have been kept in custody by public museums such as the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay in Paris since the end of the conflict.

In 2018, the government set up a special unit to try to track down the heirs of the owners, rather than waiting for them to come forward in a bid to speed up the process.

One of the paintings set to be returned is titled “Rose bushes under trees” by Gustav Klimt, which is currently held by the Musee d’Orsay and is the only painting by the Austrian master owned by the French state.

It was acquired in 1980 but subsequent research has shown it was forcibly sold by Austrian collector Eleonore Stiasny in Vienna in 1938 before she was deported and killed.

In December, another four works of looted art were returned to their Jewish owner’s legal heirs.

The watercolours and drawings by French 19th-century artists were seized in 1940 from businessman Moise Levi de Benzion.

Until these four works were returned, only 169 artworks had been restored to their owners since 1951 out of an estimated 2,200 held by the French state.

The French culture ministry estimates that a total of 100,000 artworks were seized in France during the war, when the country was administered by the Nazis and an anti-Semitic French collaborationist regime. 

In November, France handed back 26 treasures that were looted from the West African nation of Benin during the colonial era, part of a separate pledge by Macron to restore some artworks to the continent.

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Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.