Macron's Next Trick? Restoring Honor To The Legion Of Honor

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.

The Legion of Honor, France’s highest order of merit
The Legion of Honor, France’s highest order of merit
Julie Boulet


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.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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