Honor, Country and the Pursuit of Medals

What do Parisian Aurélie Dupont and American serviceman Alek Skarlatos of Roseburg, Oregon, have in common? Answer: Dupont, until recently the prima ballerina of the Paris Opera, and Skarlatos, who helped subdue a terrorist on the Amsterdam-Paris train, were both awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 2015.
© Olivier Tallec

Dupont was among the 544 citizens who received France’s iconic national decoration in the July 14 annual distribution of honors: Skarlatos in a special ceremony at the Elysée Palace, along with two other young Americans and an Englishman, in recognition of what President François Hollande called “a lesson in courage, in will, and therefore in hope.”

The ballerina and the American soldier were both named chevalier, the lowest of the order’s five levels; but what they don’t share is membership of the institutional structure that supports the Légion d’Honneur. Deserving (in French eyes) foreigners receive the coveted, red ribboned medal, actually a variation on the eight-pointed Maltese cross, but are not inducted into the Légion, which has its own school for its members’ daughters, and a historic landmark building on the left bank of the Seine as its seat and museum – the Hôtel de Salm (including the Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur et des Ordres de Chevalerie). Built in 1782 by the architect Pierre Rousseau, it was much admired by Thomas Jefferson who used it as a model for his own estate at Monticello. In the early 1920s a somewhat smaller version of the Hôtel de Salm was built in San Francisco to serve as one of the city’s leading museums.

Every year, France awards the Légion d’Honneur to about 1,500 of its citizens, with the recipients coming from every walk of life – soldiers, veterans, politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, schoolteachers, industrialists, poets, and clergymen. The Légion’s rules stipulate that all recipients must have spent at least 20 years in public service or a profession, and have performed with distinction. Thus the Légion d’Honneur is the bedrock of France’s claims to being a meritocracy. At its best, the order honors French men and women who have distinguished themselves in the service of their country. Its critics say it is too often abused as a useful tool of political patronage – a claim rooted in the fact that the Légion d’Honneur is in the gift of the president of the Republic as ex-officio grand master of the order, usually acting on nominations by his government. In July, the magazine Le Point quoted an unnamed critic as saying, “De Gaulle didn’t hand out the Légion d’Honneur like chocolates. Hollande, like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, hands out [Légion] crosses to people who could be of service.” The magazine went on to observe that it was “hardly possible to list all the ‘friends’ who were decorated by Sarkozy, and then proceeded to do so: Isabelle Balkany, Frédéric Péchenard, Jacques Servier, Mireille Matthieu…

In 2014, President Hollande appeared to push back against such allegations at the investiture of Jean d’Ormesson, the novelist and former editor of Le Figaro who had once dismissed the Socialist president as “no statesman.” When Hollande conferred the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur on the 90-year-old writer he remarked, “The president for whom you have never voted has great pleasure in presenting you with this insignia.”

In reality, the Légion d’Honneur was an order of chivalry introduced by Napoléon I in 1802 to replace the hereditary aristocracy wiped out by the Revolution with one based on personal merit, originally in the military. To those who objected that the new order was elitist and contrary to one of the guiding values of Revolutionary France, égalité, he argued, “You call these baubles. Well, it is with baubles that men are led. Do you think you would be able to make men fight by reasoning? Never! The soldier needs glory, decorations, rewards.”

Having thrown égalité out of the window, Napoléon went on to create his own imperial nobility of which the Légion d’Honneur was the lowest rung in the ladder. It survived the Restoration, the second Empire and successive Republics honoring individuals for actions that benefit the public good. With the Légion d’Honneur Napoléon can be said to have opened the floodgates for medal giving in France which currently has 37 main orders, medals and decorations in addition to a slew of ministerial versions: At the top of the list are seven national orders: the Légion d’Honneur, the Order of the Liberation, the National Order of Merit, the Order of Arts and Letters, the Order of Academic Palms, the Order of Agricultural Merit, and the Order of Maritime Merit. Top military honors are the Military Medal, and the Croix de Guerre. The decorations range in date from 1883, when the Medal of Honor of Water and Forests was introduced, to 2012 when the Medal of Honor for Internal Security was established – an award that gains relevance following the terrorist attacks of November 2015.

The French, typically, complain of medal fatigue, but covet the awards all the same. For example, rejections of the Légion d’Honneur have been few, but noteworthy, among them Pierre and Marie Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and most recently the rock star economist Thomas Piketty, who said he had refused consideration for membership of the order because, “I don’t think it is the government’s role to decide who is honorable,” which perhaps misses the point. On the other hand, there has been a significant increase in the number of women inducted into the Légion d’Honneur, in part in response to President Sarkozy’s urging while in office, but also reflecting the ascendance of women in public life. In 2008, for example, after Sarkozy’s appeal, there were more women nominees than men (332 to 330).

It must be said that other countries have not lagged behind in the ritual of pinning bits of precious metal to the breasts of the deserving. In the United Kingdom, the queen creates a nobility of merit to sit alongside the country’s landed aristocracy (but it is the government that makes the recommendations). The United States already has an enormous, and growing, list of medals and honors for meritorious service: The CIA alone has 15 different categories of medals.

In these other countries, however, the system of handing out honors and medals tends to be more inward looking. The American Medal of Honor has never been given to a French citizen, but the French have been generous in awarding the Légion d’Honneur to a wide variety of Americans with a sometimes tenuous French connection. Among the earliest to be honored was Alexander Graham Bell. Movie stars have included Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and – inevitably – Jerry Lewis. Recent recipients include the distinguished Washington-based journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave, and, of course Alek Skarlatos. In America, recognition of Skarlatos’ heroic act took a different form: An instant celebrity, he competed in the television show Dancing With the Stars and came close to winning.

Article published in the January 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.