by Steve Martindale
The Legion of Honour (Légion d’honneur or Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur) is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon someone in France. The order’s motto is Honneur et Patrie (Honour and Fatherland), and its seat is the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur on the left bank of the River Seine in Paris.
The order was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte as an institution that was open to all men, although initially only Frenchmen, who had either acted bravely on the battlefield or had served civil France in some exemplary way.
Following the French Revolution, all the old orders of chivalry and nobility were disbanded. The orders of the previous monarchy had often been limited to Roman Catholics and all knights had to be noblemen. Napoleon was keen to make the new order a secular one that was open to men of all ranks and professions. Only merit and bravery counted.
Initially, some 48,000 men became part of the Legion, only 1,200 of them civilians, but Bonaparte insisted that all recipients be considered his equal. Inductees into the Legion received a small white-enamelled cross, which hung on a red-silk ribbon, as a public show of gratitude. The medal was often presented by Bonaparte himself, although the more usual way for a soldier to get the coveted recognition was via his senior regimental officer.
It is noteworthy that all previous orders were represented by crosses or shared a clear Christian background, whereas the Legion, as a non-religious institution, chose a medal based on a five-pointed Maltese cross.
The Legion of Honour is divided into five classes (in ascending order): Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross). Recipients will normally enter at the level of Chevalier and be promoted through the ranks following continued service.
The archives of the Legion were burned down in street fighting in 1871, but it is known that in the early years of its existence, at least three women who fought with the army were decorated with the order: Virginie Ghesquière, Marie-Jeanne Schelling and a nun, Sister Anne Biget.
These days the order is conferred, in addition to military recipients, to many entrepreneurs, high-level civil servants and sports champions. Since the First World War, foreigners are also eligible for the honour. In recent years such luminaries as Céline Dion and J. K. Rowling have been awarded the Legion of Honour.
The President of the French Republic is the Grand Master of the Order and appoints all other members, by convention on the advice of the government.