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Foreign recipients of France’s highest honour to remain in the shadows

Adalberto Roque, AFP | The insignia of a Commander of the Légion d’Honneur.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to reduce the number of people awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France's highest distinction. But one group remains exempt from stricter scrutiny: foreign dignitaries given the medal for "diplomatic" purposes.


“Returning to the spirit” of the Légion d'Honneur is how French government spokesman Christophe Castaner described the goal of Macron’s reform. Speaking on November 2 after a meeting of government ministers, he said that attribution of the medal would become more selective and more “merit-based” as of 2018.

The number of people who receive the Légion d'Honneur, which was created by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802 to reward distinguished citizens and military bravery, will drop to under 2,000 each year in the future, roughly 1,000 fewer than at present.

The reform, Castaner explained, will reduce the number of civilians who receive the decoration by 50% and the number of military personnel by 10%. Foreign citizens can also receive the honour for having “rendered service to France” (by way of cultural or economic achievement, or for fighting on behalf of causes that France supports, for example), though they are not eligible to become members of the National Order of the Légion d'Honneur. Their number will decrease by 25%.

The move to reform the distinguished Order comes in the wake of a highly publicised mid-October decision by Macron to “begin the process” of stripping American director Harvey Weinstein of his Légion d'Honneur after accusations of sexual assault.

But there is one category of recipients who will be spared any changes – those who receive the Légion d'Honneur out of “diplomatic reciprocity”. There are no lists and no statistics concerning those who receive the medal during an official state visit or for "diplomatic" purposes. Such attributions are neither published in the Order’s official journal, nor are they the subject of any sort of official communication, the Grand Chancellery of the Légion d'Honneur, the Order’s governing body, told FRANCE 24. Instead, it is the “prerogative of the president” to grant the Légion d'Honneur as he sees fit.

And France’s head of state has broad latitude to use the distinction as a tool of foreign policy. “State visits are occasions for the Légion d'Honneur to be given to official persons out of diplomatic reciprocity, as a way to buttress French foreign policy,” the Chancellery said.

As such, when Jacques Chirac awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d'Honneur the highest distinction within the Order to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during an official visit to Paris in 2001, no word of it leaked until 2009 when the Syrian embassy revealed it to Béatrice Wattel, the author of a book researching the Légion d'Honneur.

A Légion d'Honneur for Vladimir Putin?

Chirac attempted to bestow the Légion d'Honneur on Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006, also for diplomatic purposes. But this time a Russian camera captured the moment, rendering it public and sparking widespread indignation.

“That a predator against freedom of the press would be elevated to a distinction as high as the Grand Cross of the Légion d'Honneur is an insult to all those in Russia who fight for freedom of the press; freedom to be informed, and for the existence of real democracy in that country,” fumed Reporters Without Borders in a statement.

However, Chirac is not the only French president to have pinned the medallion of the Grand Cross to the chest of a controversial foreign dignitary. Before him, Charles de Gaulle bestowed the honour on Nicolae Ceausescu and François Mitterand decorated former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. President Nicolas Sarkozy gave it to Ali Bongo, president of Gabon, and François Hollande granted it to the former crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed ben Nayef.

For the French state, the “too much is too much” line was crossed in 2010, when former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had received the Légion d'Honneur in 1987, was extradited to France from the US to serve out a prison term for laundering money derived from drug trafficking. As a result, the code governing the Légion d'Honneur was modified so that it could be stripped from a foreigner who had been “sentenced for a crime or to a prison term of at least one year without possibility of parole” or if he or she has “committed acts or behaved in such a way that could be declared dishonourable, or could damage the interests of France abroad or the causes that France supports throughout the world”.

That addition to the code makes it theoretically possible to withdraw the Légion d'Honneur from anyone who abuses human rights. Asked about that on November 2, Castaner kept the door open to such a move. “There are discussions between the president and the National Order of the Légion d'Honneur about finding solutions to taking back the medal regarding any subject that could cast a shadow on France,” he said.

But if Assad is stripped of his distinction, will the public be informed? The Chancellery indicated that, just as diplomatic bestowments of the Légion d'Honneur are unannounced, any revocation of these decorations “would not be published in the official journal of the Order”.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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