The Legion of Honour, officially the National Order of the Legion of Honour, or Légion d’honneur in French, is France’s highest order of merit.
The order is awarded to those that excel in their field, be it military, agriculture, industry, science, art, or sport.
The trades that get awarded are varied however one stipulation remains the same - the recipient needs to have gone above and beyond what is expected, dedicated a minimum of 20 years to their profession.
The award can also be presented for exceptional acts of bravery as well as on a diplomatic basis.
Egalitarian award with political beginnings
Napoleon Bonaparte established the Légion d’honneur in 1802 when he was First Council, two years before becoming Emperor.
After France became a Republic, all its previous orders of chivalry were abolished.
Napoleon’s motivation for establishing the Legion was to create an award for both civilians and soldiers based on merit.
It could be argued that the Légion d’honneur was the first modern order of merit. At the time, all the other awards were limited to officers or members of a certain social class, religion or status. The Légion d’honneur transcended these boundaries.
Although the award has been slightly altered by each consecutive French administration – the ethos that it is based on merit alone has remained unchanged.
Napoleon also had political motivations for creating the award. It inspired loyalty in those that received it – a clever diplomatic ploy.
This trend, although not to the same degree, has continued to this day, with some being awarded on a diplomatic basis to strengthen French connections abroad as part of the country’s foreign policy. For example, in 2016 when then US Secretary of State John Kerry was awarded the order, he proclaimed in French “Long live French fries! Long live France! Long live the USA!”
During the award ceremony, the US Secretary of State was also sure to make clear that France is the “oldest ally” of the United States, highlighting the diplomatic importance of the award.
How many are given out each year?
There are more than 92,000 people currently decorated with the Legion d’Honneur. The awards are divided equally between men and women.
Similarly, half of the Legion of Honour awards are also divided in half between military or civilian.
There are five orders of increasing distinction from Knight (Chevalier) to Grand Cross.
If an order recipient continues doing well and keeps serving society in the way that the French state sees as beneficial, it is possible to move up in the ranks with an interval of three to eight years in between receiving each award.
The maximum number of people decorated with the order each year, both military and civilian is 2,550.
The five categories (in ascending order) are:
- Grand-croix - minimum three years in the rank of Grand-officier
- Grand officier - minimum three years in the rank of Commandeur
- Commandeur - minimum five years in the rank of Officier
- Officier - minimum eight years in the rank of Chevalier
- Chevalier - minimum 20 years of public service or 25 years of professional activity with "eminent merits"
You do not need to be a French citizen to be decorated
Anyone who has contributed in some way to the betterment of France, although this definition is loose and can be stretched to humanity as a whole, can be awarded with the Legion of Honour.
Among some of the famous decorated Brits are writer J.K. Rowling, actor Sean Connery, pop icon Elton John and long-distance sailor Ellen McArthur.
Out of the 313 awards given to foreigners each year, many are given out on a diplomatic basis, especially to those individuals who have an affinity to France. During John Kerry’s ceremony in 2016, the French foreign minister pointed out that Kerry was a “Francophone” and a “Francophile”, as well as " the most French of American officials.”
Civilian or military?
The award is the highest French order of merit both civilian and military.
Recipients of the Legion of Honour for heroic acts during war are automatically also decorated with the Croix de Guerre, the highest French military medal.
Since 2014 more than six thousand British veterans have been presented the honour for helping to liberate France during the Second World War.
There are four cohorts of recipients each year. Two civilian cohorts, with the first one on the first day of the new year and the second one in July.
The military cohorts are divided into active-duty military personnel which are also awarded in July and the military reserves and veterans are honoured in November.
Special cohorts can also be announced throughout the year for historic occasions, as well as important cultural and sports events such as the Olympics or the anniversaries of the Liberation of France.
French ministers decide who is worthy
One cannot apply to be a recipient of the Legion of Honour. However, ordinary citizens can put forward a candidate for the French government to consider. To file an application, 50 signatures are needed.
The ultimate decision rests with French ministers who are responsible for identifying honourees. They listen to advice from trade unions, businesses, charities, sports federations and public sector workers – basically, everyone has a say.
The only people who are excluded from being nominated are those with a criminal record.
If a Legion of Honour recipient commits a crime, they run the risk of the award being taken off them. However, this is not an automated process. Additionally, the Honour can be revoked for any dishonourable actions that are seen to be detrimental to France and its people.
Is there a cash prize?
During the time of Napoleon Bonaparte when the order was first established recipients were lavishly compensated for their contribution to French society.
Today, contrary to popular belief, there is no monetary gain that comes with the decoration.
However, there is a symbolic annual sum granted to the military recipients exclusively. The rank of Knight (Chevalier) receives €6.10, while the highest class recipient of the Grand Cross receives €36.59.