Such disreputable figures as Lance Armstrong and John Galliano, Bashar al-Assad and Manuel Noriega have gotten France's highest honor. That needs to change.
PARIS — On July 14, France's National day, Emmanuel Macron will present the Légion d'honneur to the recipients of his choice. The newly elected president has already gained the respect of world leaders: standing up to heavyweights like Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin, the 39-year-old with scant diplomatic experience has proven, at least through a number of testosterone-filled handshakes, to be as strong as his American and Russian counterparts.
He has also presented a global view of the world, not one centered solely around the well-being of his own people. In a widely shared video, he made an appeal, in English, to "make our planet great again." And recently he launched a website inviting researchers from all around the world to join France's fight against global warming, in an attempt to snatch brilliant minds from countries denying climate change. In his latest coup de théâtre, he invited Trump to be his special guest during Bastille Day celebrations Friday.
Macron, the youngest French leader since Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected as a symbol of change. He is expected to rejuvenate the country's image and perhaps even shake off its legendary pessimism.
France might not have been the butt of as many jokes as the U.S. since Trump, but some elements of French diplomacy have hurt the country's image. This includes the Legion of Honor, France's highest order of merit, established in 1802 with Napoleon's support, which decorates civilians and members of the military from France and other countries.
Often the laureates are prestigious international figures, such as General George S. Patton, Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Others have been more controversial: Vladimir V. Putin's Legion of Honor, awarded in 2006, was highly criticized. The group Reporters Without Borders decried the decision to honor Putin, saying it was "a shocking endorsement of his policies," and that "elevating a press freedom predator to the rank of Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor is an insult to all those in Russia who fight for press freedom."
Infamous criminals are also among the recipients. Dictators such as Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, Yugaslavia's Josip Broz Tito, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Ali Bongo of Gabon were all decorated by French presidents. Mussolini received the medal in 1923, after having created the fascist party. Taking the honor away from a member of the Order of the Legion of Honor was then impossible, and the Duce kept his decoration even after establishing the Pact of Steel and all through World War II.
In 2001, another controversial leader was added to the list of recipients. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was decorated by then-president Jacques Chirac, who hoped the rise to power of a new generation in the Middle East would lead to progress. Francophone and educated, the son of President Hafez al-Assad was a new hope for his country. But since the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria, the former eye doctor has became known as a brutal dictator responsible for massacres and sarin gas attacks against his own people.
The Legion of Honor can be awarded to both French and foreign nationals. French recipients become official members of the Legion: They swear allegiance to the country and are bound to protect the territory and head of state. Decorated foreigners are chosen by the president, without input from the Legion of Honor Board, and they do not become official members of the Legion. Traditionally, every visiting foreign head of state is awarded the medal, as a way to strengthen diplomatic ties. This turns the Legion of Honor into an open bar for Realpolitik.
The Legion of Honor's charter was changed in 2010, making it possible to revoke the medal for non-French recipients convicted of a felony. Since then, some have lost their decoration: The first was Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama and CIA agent who had served prison terms in the United States and France. Cyclist Lance Armstrong and fashion designer John Galliano were also stripped of their honors. But Assad, who has never had to face a judge, still holds his Legion of Honor decoration.
It is now up to Macron to bring new changes to the Legion's charter and ensure the medal only goes to those who have really earned the distinction, and taken away from those who are undeserving. Only then will the honor of the Legion of Honor finally be restored.