Activists are being tried in Paris over the attempted theft of an African artwork from the Quai Branly Museum, which they say was a protest of colonial-era practices.
PARIS — Wearing a long, white tunic with the names of two African ethnic groups written on it, the defendant stepped forward to the bar, took a breath, and launched into a plea.
“No one has sought to find out what harm has been done to Africa,” said the defendant, Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congo-born 41-year-old activist and spokesman for a Pan-African movement that denounces colonialism and cultural expropriation.
Mr. Diyabanza, along with four associates, stood accused of attempting to steal a 19th-century African funeral pole from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris in mid-June, as part of an action to protest colonial-era cultural theft and seek reparations.
But it was Wednesday’s emotionally charged trial that gave real resonance to Mr. Diyabanza’s struggle, as a symbolic defendant was called to the stand: France, and its colonial track record.
The presiding judge in charge of the case acknowledged the two trials: One, judging the group, four men and a woman, on a charge of attempted theft for which they could face up to 10 years in prison and fines of about $173,000.
“And another trial, that of the history of Europe, of France with Africa, the trial of colonialism, the trial of the misappropriation of the cultural heritage of nations,” the judge told the court, adding that such was a “citizen’s trial, not a judicial one.”
The political and historical ramifications were hard to avoid.
France’s vast trove of African heritage — it is estimated that some 90,000 sub-Saharan African cultural objects are held in French museums — was largely acquired under colonial times, and many of these artworks were looted or acquired under dubious circumstances. That has put France at the center of a debate on the restitution of colonial-era holdings to their countries of origin.
Unlike in Germany, where this debate has been welcomed by both the government and museums, France has struggled to offer a consistent response, just as the country is facing a difficult reckoning with its past.