The Giveaway

French Medals, an Arsenal of Awards from the Republic

Seen as trinkets by some and prestigious awards by others, medals sparkle on the chests of ambassadors, actors, artists, athletes, bankers, and bakers. This arsenal of civilian honors is a remnant of the French Empire and comprises almost 40 different medals, including some awarded to international figures.
© Olivier Tallec

Following the Soccer World Cup, the Elysée Palace announced the 23 players from the French team would be awarded the Legion of Honor. However, the mayor of a village in the Haute-Saône département thought it would be inappropriate to give out such as prestigious distinction to a soccer team on the same year as the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. He went so far as to ask the players to refuse the medals, believing that Kylian Mbappé and his teammates were too young to appreciate such an accolade. “Receiving this medal at the age of 20 […] would be indecent,” he said. “We have to stop giving them to just anyone.” This is a frequent criticism. The oldest French distinction – created by Napoleon in 1802 – has lost its luster. Some deplore that they are given out “like chocolate medals.” In terms of numbers, almost 1,500 French and international citizens receive the Legion of Honor every year. And that is without counting the medal for the National Order of Merit, given to 5,000 people annually, and the 11,635 medals for the Order of the Academic Palms awarded to teachers and professors every year.

Successive French presidents have tried to “restore a little order to the medley of medals,” says Olivier Menut, a Reims-based lawyer, amateur phalerist, and author of a book about French medals. Despite the efforts, France remains “one of the Western countries with the greatest variety of distinctions.” There are two leading national orders (The National Order of the Legion of Honor and the National Order of Merit) and four ministerial orders (the Order of Academic Palms, the Order of Agricultural Merit, the Order of Maritime Merit, and the Order of Arts and Letters). These are all governed by a strict hierarchy. Exceptional circumstances aside, everyone begins as a Knight before rising through the ranks (Officer, Commander) and honors (Grand Officer and, finally, Grand Cross). On a slightly less grandiose scale, there are 32 ministerial medals and other honors: the Medal of Honor for Acts of Bravery and Devotion, established in 1816; the Medal of Honor of the Waterways and Forests, the Insignia for Wounded Civilians; the Medal of the Family; the Aeronautical Medal; the Medal of Honor for Freight Road Transport, and even the Medal for Tourism, created in 1989.

Limiting the Numbers of New Medals

Each new honor has to be approved by the Grand Chancery of the Legion of Honor, an institution responsible for French orders and awards, and is confirmed via a decree published in the Official State Journal. The Medal for Internal Security put forward by the Minister of the Interior was established in 2012, while the National Medal of Recognition for Victims of Terrorism – an initiative launched by President François Hollande – was confirmed in 2016. However, the Medal for Charity Volunteer Work was refused. Instead, a Medal for Youth and Sports was “expanded” and renamed the “Medal for Youth, Sports, and Charity Work” to distinguish volunteers while limiting the addition of more awards.

In 1963, following two world wars and two others linked to decolonization, the Order of the Legion of Honor had more than 320,000 living members. In an effort to halt this inflation which dulled the medal’s prestige, Charles De Gaulle limited the maximum number of living medal winners to 125,000. Today there are 92,000. Around the same time, the president introduced the National Order of Merit. This new distinction, nicknamed the “blue medal” in reference to the color of its ribbon, replaced 17 other orders including those of Postal Merit and Saharan Merit. These and others were removed and are no longer awarded, although the medals are still worn today.


Emmanuel Macron has also attempted to slow the distribution of medals. Last November he decided to reduce the number of National and Ministerial Orders by 25%. The most recent Legions of Honor, awarded on July 14, 2018, totaled 392 (compared with the usual 500-600) and respected gender parity regulations in place since 2008. The criteria remain the same – 20 years of proven exemplary service, a clean criminal record, and “good morals” – but the profile of legionnaires is becoming more diverse. New awardees are younger and represent new fields. This year included seven former ministers and two ambassadors, but also a glassmaker, a chocolatier, a geographer, a gynecologist, a children’s writer, and a sign language interpreter.

Identifying Those Most Worthy

The Legion of Honor is not something you request, according to the Grand Chancery in Paris. The task of choosing future members falls to government ministers, who are assisted locally by senators, deputies, mayors, presidents of associations, unions, and sports clubs. Since 2008, every citizen can nominate a person they believe to be worthy of the National Order of the Legion of Honor or the National Order of Merit. This requires the signatures of 50 adult citizens in the same département as the person in question, a rule that forms the principle of “civic initiative.”

The council of the National Order of the Legion of Honor collects applications and investigates the “good character and morality” of each candidate. Some 15% of nominations are generally rejected. Being sentenced to a year in prison or committing acts that are “detrimental to one’s honor” or that “harm the interests of France” are both grounds for refusal (and even for the removal of the medal). This was how Lance Armstrong and Harvey Weinstein were stripped of their distinctions. The definitive list of nominations is then approved by the president of the French Republic, who is named the Grand Master of the National Order of the Legion of Honor upon election. The president can remove names but cannot add more. After being signed, the final list is announced by decree in the Official State Journal on January 1 and July 14 every year.

Each awardee is then required to purchase their medal and organize a ceremony. The insignia is traditionally gifted by a sponsor, the family, or even an employer. A few jewelers sell these distinctions: The Paris Mint, Bacqueville in the first arrondissement in Paris, Mouret in Avignon, and Arthus-Bertrand, which has nine stores across France. The 12th model of the medal for Knights of the Legion of Honor is now in circulation, featuring a star with five double rays in enameled silver. The center bears a gold medallion stamped with the profile of Ceres – the Roman goddess of agriculture and a symbol of the French Republic. “In an effort to save money, an alloy of zinc, aluminum, magnesium, and copper called zamak is often used instead of silver,” says phalerist Robert Seniso. “And plastic resin is preferred over enamel.” A medal in “silver-plated bronze” comes in at around 50 euros, and a solid silver model costs between 175 and 210 euros.

Distinguished Americans

Not all honors are reserved for French citizens. During the time of the Empire, international weddings, alliances, and treaties were sealed with an exchange of medals. On July 22, 1853, Dr. Thomas W. Evans, a dentist and confidant of Napoleon III, was the first American to be distinguished as a Knight of the Legion of Honor. The emperor supposedly said “I hope your friends in America will understand how much you are appreciated by us,” as he pinned the medal to the doctor’s left breast.

Every year, 350 medals for the Legion of Honor and 340 medals for the National Order of Merit are presented to international figures. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs presents the nominations and relies on ambassadors and consuls to identify candidates. Foreign nominees receive the insignia from the relevant order, but only French citizens are accepted as members. This condition imposed by Napoleon was inspired by the knights’ orders during the Middle Ages as a way of rebuilding the nobility after the Revolution. More than 11,000 American artists, patrons, and soldiers have been awarded the Legion of Honor since 1938. They include Kirk Douglas, Toni Morrison, David Lynch, Quincy Jones, John Kerry, Stephen Schwarzman, Tom Bishop, and David Petraeus. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Ray Bradbury, William Burroughs, Iggy Pop, and Pharrell Williams have been awarded the Medal of Arts and Letters, and Bob Dylan has been honored with both.

As part of the 60th anniversary of the Normandy Landings, President Jacques Chirac decided to award the Legion of Honor to all former soldiers who helped free France during World War II. More than 7,000 U.S. soldiers have already received their medals, which are often presented at collective ceremonies. Emmanuel Macron personally awarded medals to three veterans during his official visit to Washington last April. And the Consul General of France in Chicago, Guillaume Lacroix, has distinguished 18 former U.S. soldiers with the Legion of Honor since taking up his functions a year ago.

A Fellowship

Legionnaires living in the United States meet at the American Society of the French Legion of Honor. The mutual support group founded in 1924 is presided by the French-American businessman Guy Wildenstein, and today has 1,456 members including more than 1,000 World War II veterans.

The medals are generally sported at official events. On normal days, a rosette or a ribbon worn on the left lapel of a jacket serves as a nod to the color of the award. These decorations are rarely worn in the United States, but can often be seen in France. “Observing the ribbons or medals someone wears is a way of understanding who they are,” says Robert Seniso. “It is a sign of recognition. Wearers can identify each other and understand they are part of the same fellowship.”

Article published in the October 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.