France seeks to restore honour to Legion d'Honneur

Paris (AFP) –


France on Thursday announced an overhaul of its Legion d'Honneur awards system, as part of President Emmanuel Macron's mission to clean up politics.

The prizes have been in the spotlight since Macron announced last month that France would strip Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of his Legion of Honour over lurid sex assault allegations.

French Presidents have traditionally handed out some 3,000 such awards each year to French citizens and foreigners alike under a two-century-old system.

But government spokesman Christophe Castaner said the numbers would be drastically cut from next year and awarded solely on the basis of merit, as originally intended.

"We do not have the Legion d'Honneur to butter people up," Castaner said, adding the honours should not be part of an "old boys' network".

There will be a 50 percent cut in civilian honours from 2018-20, a ten percent drop in military awards and 25 percent fewer gongs for foreigners, he said.

Efforts will be made to select award-winners who better reflect modern France, he said, noting that "white men aged over 60" currently account for too many of the recipients.

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- one of many heads of state granted the Legion d'Honneur -- should be stripped of his, Castaner said authorities could consider this "legitimate" request.

Macron, elected in May, has made improving the standards of public life a central theme of his presidency following a string of political scandals in France.

The first law he signed prevents politicians from hiring relatives, after the presidential campaign of rightwing rival Francois Fillon was torpedoed by revelations he paid his family hundreds of thousands of euros.

Macron had already signalled he planned to crack down on Legion d'Honneur handouts, surprising many in July by awarding just 101 to mark Bastille Day instead of the customary 500-600.

- Galliano, Armstrong -

Set up by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the prizes have previously been awarded almost systematically to former ministers, academics, ambassadors and military officers.

Half have been granted to women since 2008 under a policy change by then president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Legion d'Honneur is open to foreigners whose cultural or scientific talents are deemed to have contributed to France, but they have also been dished out in pursuit of diplomatic objectives.

Last year the decision to bestow one on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef -- the heir to the throne at the time though he has since been sidelined -- sparked a storm of criticism.

Weinstein, honoured in 2012, is not the first foreigner to be stripped of his Legion d'Honneur.

Fashion designer John Galliano's was taken away in 2012 after an anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar, while cyclist Lance Armstrong lost his two years later over doping revelations.

Late Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega lost his over drug trafficking convictions which saw him serve time behind bars in France as well as the United States.