On Friday, France’s national holiday, Emmanuel Macron presented the Legion d’Honneur to the recipients of his choice. The newly-elected president has already gained the respect of world leaders: Standing up to heavyweights like the United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He has also presented a global view of the world, not one centred solely on the well-being of his own people. In a widely shared video, he made an appeal, in English, to “make our planet great again”. And recently, he launched a website inviting researchers from around the world to join France’s fight against global warming, in an attempt to snatch brilliant minds from countries that deny climate change. Macron, the youngest French leader since Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected as a symbol of change. He is expected to rejuvenate the country’s image and perhaps even shake off its legendary pessimism.
France might not have been the butt of as many jokes as the US since Trump, but some elements of French diplomacy have hurt the country’s image. This includes the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit, established in 1802 with Napoleon’s support, which decorates civilians and members of the military from France and other countries.
Often the laureates are prestigious international figures, such as General George S. Patton, Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Others have been more controversial: Putin’s Legion of Honour, awarded in 2006, was highly criticised. The group Reporters Without Borders decried the decision to honour Putin. Infamous criminals are also among the recipients. Dictators such as Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia were decorated by French presidents. Benitto Mussolini had received the medal in 1923, after having created the fascist party. Taking the honour away from a member of the Order of the Legion of Honour was impossible at the time, and the Duce kept his decoration even after establishing the Pact of Steel and all through the Second World War.
In 2001, another controversial leader was added to the list of recipients. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was decorated by then-president Jacques Chirac, who hoped the rise to power of a new generation in the Middle East would lead to progress. But since the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria, the former eye doctor has became known as a brutal dictator responsible for massacres and sarin gas attacks on his own people.
The Legion of Honour can be awarded to both French and foreign nationals. French recipients become official members of the Legion: They swear allegiance to the country and are bound to protect the territory and head-of-state. Decorated foreigners are chosen by the president, without input from the Legion of Honour Board, and they do not become official members of the Legion. Traditionally, every visiting foreign head-of-state is awarded the medal, as a way to strengthen diplomatic ties. This turns the Legion of Honour into an open bar for realpolitik.
The Legion of Honour’s charter was changed in 2010, making it possible to revoke the medal for non-French recipients convicted of a felony. Since then, some have lost their decoration: The first was Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama. Cyclist Lance Armstrong and fashion designer John Galliano were all stripped of their honours. But Al Assad, who has never had to face a judge, still holds his decoration.
It is now up to Macron to bring new changes to the Legion’s charter and ensure that the medal only goes to those who have really earned the distinction – and is taken away from those who are undeserving. Only then will the honour of the Legion of Honor finally be restored.
Source : Gulf News