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5 things to know about France's Légion d'honneur

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5 things to know about France's Légion d'honneur
The medal showing the Legion d'honneur. Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP

It's often in the news when being awarded to people, and sometimes when badly-behaved recipients are stripped of theirs - but from Napoleon to necklaces, here are 5 things you might not know about France's Légion d'honneur.


There are an estimated 1 million people worldwide who have been awarded France's highest honour and it is one of the most recognised national distinctions in the world. 

But here's five things you might not know about France's Légion d'honneur;

1 It was invented by Napoleon

Here's a French history tip - if you don't know where something originates then at least 50 percent of the time it will turn out to have something to do with Napoleon. 

And this is also the case with the Légion d'honneur which was created by Napoleon in 1802 - in this case the award replaced a royal honour known as the Ordre royal de la Légion d'honneur, which was dished out by French kings to their favourite aristocrats. 


France has been through several regime changes since Napoleon, but the Légion d'honneur has survived relatively unchanged ever since.

Talking about 'the' honour is actually not strictly correct; there are five grades - chevaliers, officiers, commandeurs, grands officiers and grand-croix - which are awarded depending on your level of service or outstanding achievement.

The military titles (chevalier means knight, while officer and commander are historic military ranks) reflect the award's history when it was largely awarded to serving soldiers. 

2 It's a meritocracy (sort of)

The royal version of the Légion could only be awarded to noblemen who were Catholic, but Napoleon widened the honour so that it could be awarded to anyone of any rank or religion - and also included both soldiers and civilians.

Well, anyone is a bit of a misnomer - any men would be more accurate. 

The first recorded woman to be awarded the Légion d'honneur was Angélique Duchemin in 1852 - decorated for her role in the Revolution. However early records of the awards are not complete and it's possible that three female Revolutionaries were given honours earlier.

Napoleon himself distributed 15 Grand cordons (at that time the highest rank of the honour) - all to either his ministers or members of his family.

The tradition of politicians honouring their allies or people they want to make allies has not entirely faded away.


3 It's not just for the French

The legion is not just for French nationals, it can also be awarded to foreigners - and in fact often is.

The general criteria for the award is;

  • To have shown outstanding merit in activities in the public interest or to the benefit of France for at least 20 years 
  • To have a clean criminal record and bonne moralité (or good character)
  • To be proposed by either a minister (in which case you are usually nominated by someone working within public administration) or at least 50 members of the public

There are also some special cases; for example president François Hollande in 2014 decided to award the Légion d'honneur to all surviving British veterans of the D-Day landings. Other military veterans and servicemen wounded in action are also often given the honour.

And it's fairly frequently awarded to high-profile foreign artists, politicians or other public figures that the president wishes to honour.

Ultimately, the Légion is awarded by the president, who signs a decree and publishes it in the Journal Officiel, although in practice most of the awards are decided by ministers.


It is possible to decline the offer of the honour, and people sometimes do, but your name is still included in the records as having been offered the award.

Recipients can also be stripped of their award if they have been convicted of a crime or have done anything that is "contrary to honour or likely to harm the interests of France".

This happens fairly regularly.

READ ALSO The people stripped of the Légion d'honneur

4 President 

Which brings us to the president, who is the only person to automatically get the honour.

There are thousands of holders of the Légion d'honneur (there is no single complete list of recipients but it's certainly a lot) but the upper ranks have quota so that, for example, there can never be more than 75 Grand Croix holders.

As of 2010 there were 67 Grand Croix holders, 314 Grands Officiers, 3,009 Commandeurs, 17,032 Officiers and 74,384 Chevaliers. This number does not include military awards or special awards like the D-Day veterans. 

There are also some 'collective awards' when the Légion has been given to a military unit or a town.

The legion has, however, only one Grand maître (grand master) - and that is the head of state. Over the years that has been Napoleon himself, a briefly restored monarchy and lots of prime ministers and presidents. Under the Fifth Republic the president becomes the Grand Master when they take office, which means that Emmanuel Macron is Le Grand mâitre de l'Ordre de la Légion d'honneur (among his other honorary titles such as Co-Prince of Andorra).

The grand master is given a rather cool necklace to wear to indicate their office, but presidents have not worn this in public since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1974. 

The 'collier de Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur' - or decorative necklace that indicates Commander statuts. Photo: AFP

5 Not to be confused with - doigt d'honneur and bras d'honneur

As heroic as they might sound, the 'finger of honour' and 'arm of honour' have nothing to do with the Légion, or with any kind of honourable behaviour - quite the opposite in fact.

Donner le doigt d'honneur is how the French describe 'giving the finger' - sticking one or two fingers up at someone as a gesture of disrespect.

The 'arm of honour' is the classic 'fuck you' arm gesture, made by placing one hand at the bend of the elbow of your other arm, raising that fist at the same time.


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