Have you ever noticed a tiny ribbon or rosette on someone’s left lapel? This is a distinction worn by those who have been officially honored in France. There are several different orders. The Legion d’Honneur is the oldest, most prestigious, best known and highest award, but there is also the National Order of Merit, then ministerial order for academia, agriculture and culture. Each of the orders has a different color: red for the Legion of Honor, blue for Merit, purple for Academic, green and red for Agriculture, green and white for Culture, and blue and green for Maritime.
Three times a year, 1 January, Easter and 14 July, a new list is published of those honored in France with induction into or promotion within the Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor is the highest French decoration and one of the most famous in the world. Napoléon Bonaparte, First Consul of the First Republic, established the French Legion of Honor in 1802. As a leader Napoleon knew he had to honor those who performed in an exemplary fashion and thus inspire them to do so. For two centuries, it has been presented on behalf of the Head of State to reward the most deserving citizens in all fields of activity. It is an honor, not a prize and so does not include any actual material or financial benefit (and in fact honorees must purchase their own medal and rosettes). However, it is an invaluable source of pride and recognition for the recipients and their families and an example of civic service made public. The average age of the honoree is 58.
“C’est avec des hochets que l’on mène les hommes.”
The Legion of Honor is divided into fives degrees. The three ranks are Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander) and two dignities: Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross). There can only be 75 people with the Grand Croix at one time and 250 Grand Officiers.
Some years ago a friend of ours, Henry Noullet, who was a retired colonel and author of military and Terres de France novels was promoted from Chevalier to Officier. His close friend, General Jean Combette, Grand-Croix de la Légion d’Honneur himself, presented him the cross on a ribbon in his living room. It was a simple ceremony with friends gathered around. The general gave a short speech honoring our friend Henry and placed the medal carefully over his head. We all clapped, then toasted our honored friend. It was indeed a moment of pride and recognition for a life well lived in service to France.
« Au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons officier de la Légion d’honneur.»
Any French citizen with no criminal record and at least twenty years old who has demonstrated outstanding merits in the service of the nation, in a military or a civilian capacity is eligible. The honor can also be bestowed quickly for unusual circumstances such as an Olympic gold medal, winning the World Cup or heroic deed. Candidates are named by officials, but also by the ordinary citizen. The process is long and has many steps ending with validation by the President of the Republic who is the Grand Master of the Order. Since 2008 the ratio of women to men in a given promotion must be 50%.
The actual medal is a five-armed Maltese asterisk hung on an oak and laurel wreath on a red silk ribbon. In the center is the symbol of the Republic with the inscription “République française”; On the obverse is the effigy of the Republic and on the reverse two tricolor flags surrounded by the motto “Honneur et Patrie” (Honor and Fatherland). It is only worn for formal occasions and the ribbon or rosette is used for everyday.
Our friend Henry was in good company as there are 93,000 living members in the Legion and over a million total. Every year some 3,000 people are inducted, one-third in a military capacity, two-thirds as civilians. Some 400 foreigners are awarded this honor every year but, unlike French nationals, they are not actually members of the Legion of Honor. Read more details about this prestigious award on their excellent site in impeccable English or visit the museum on quai d’Orsay.
France 24 has also made an excellent video – in French – about the Légion d’Honneur.
Roughly 10,000 Americans have been honored in France by receiving the Legion of Honor they include:
Thomas Evans, 1853, dentist first American to receive the award
Alexander Graham Bell, officer 1881
Thomas Edison, 1889, promoted to commander
John Singer Sargent, 1889, painter
Cecilia de Wentworth, 1901, first female American artist
Mary Cassat, 1904, artist (and honored on a French postage stamp in 2006)
Edith Wharton, 1916, honored for war relief work
Anne Morgan, 1919, promoted to officer in 1924 by Marshal Philippe Pétain, promoted to commander in 1932
Mrs Whitelaw Reid, 1922, ambassador’s wife
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1923, African American painter
Dean, 1924, and Mrs, 1937, Beekman of the American Cathedral
Walt Disney, 1936
Eugene Bullard, 1959, WWI African American flying Ace,
Josephine Baker, 1961, for WWII resistance activity
Jerry Lewis, 1984, promoted Commandeur 2006
Clint Eastwood, 2009
Toni Morrison, 2010
Mark Moogalian, 2015, FUSAC reader and Thalys terrorist attack hero
Bill and Melinda Gates, 2017
and many WWII veterans
The National Order of Merit is another way to be honored in France. Like the Legion of Honor, the National Order of Merit is a universal order honoring individuals from all fields of activity. It is the second national Order, designed to honor French citizens in complementarity with the Legion of Honor. The creation of the National Order of Merit results from a broad reform of the decoration system initiated in 1959 by the Grand Chancellor at the time, General Catroux, with the support of General de Gaulle, in a country in the midst of modernization. The length of service required to obtain the blue ribbon is shorter than for the Legion of Honor (10 years vs. 20 years). The award is intended to inspire younger generations hence the shorter length of service requirement. It is responsible for stimulating individual energy, uniting all intentions, and rewarding innovation and contributions to the renown of France. The National Order of Merit embodies the diversity of French society, its civic spirit, its different cultures and social origins, and its new economic sectors (technology, internet, telecom, etc.). It recognizes the commitment of the younger generation. Like the Legion of Honor, the National Order of Merit ensures true equality of access, so that all deserving citizens, whatever their place in society, can be recognized by the nation.
The National Order of Merit has its own organization but its discipline, hierarchy and process for awarding a rank are modeled after the Legion of Honor. The award is presented twice a year and there are currently 187,000 members and a total of more than 300,000 honorees since its inception.
A third way to be honored in France is by a ministerial order. Order of Academic Palms, Order of Agricultural Merit, Order of Arts and Letters, Order of Maritime Merit are orders are specifically awarded by different ministries. Due to the specialized nature of the merit being rewarded, they cannot claim to represent the entire nation. When the National Order of Merit was created in 1963, these orders were to be abolished, but their historical dimension has preserved them.
The Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) which was established in 1957 to recognize eminent artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. The Order of Arts and Letters is given out under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Culture and Communications.
Last August American visual artist and author Miles Hyman was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) by the The French Ministry of Culture. The Vermont native developed his artistic skills at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-arts. His first images appeared with French comics publisher Futuropolis in 1987. Since then Hyman has enjoyed international recognition for his work as the author and illustrator of powerful and carefully-crafted graphic novels. Reacting from his studio near Paris, Hyman said he was both “humbled and thrilled” by the news. The artist expressed the importance of French culture in his work: “France has for centuries been a beacon of inspiration for creative individuals throughout the world. I’m proud to have the privilege of living and working in a country that places such profound cultural value in artistic creation, granting artists a place of honor on an international scale — as the Order of Arts and Letters fully demonstrates! The French creative community has shaped and enriched my career for more than three decades now, giving me the opportunity to explore a vast variety of artistic endeavors. I can’t begin to express how profoundly these experiences have influenced my work and, in many ways, made me the visual artist I am today. That the French Ministry of Culture would award me this distinction on top of all that is truly a tremendous honor and I am infinitely grateful for this recognition of my work.”
Past American recipients include: composer Philip Glass, writers Ray Bradbury, Paul Auster and James Ellroy, film director Tim Burton as well as actors Meryl Streep, George Clooney and Uma Thurman.