The French Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honor), which was created by Napoléon I, periodically creates controversy. The famed Legion d’honneur is granted for military and civil service to the French nation, but the honor has a long and complex history. The website of the Legion d’honneur indicates that “La Légion d’honneur compte 92.000 membres. Chaque année environ 3.000 personnes sont distinguées, un tiers à titre militaire, deux tiers à titre civil.”
I recently attended a ceremony at the Sénat de France, in the Palais de Luxembourg, for Professor Denis Crouzet’s induction into the Legion d’honneur by Sénateur Esther Benbassa, who presented the award. Crouzet is the pre-eminent historian of the French Wars of Religion (1562-1629), and numerous early modern French historians attended the ceremony on 8 December 2014.
That the attendees included Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Robert Descimon, Mark Greengrass, Guy LeThiec, Sylvie Daubresse, Jean-Marie LeGall, Nicolas LeRoux, and many other early modern French historians indicates how important this award is for French academics. The Legion d’honneur represents the highest possible recognition of academic and public service for French professors and civil servants.
Since this ceremony, the Legion d’honneur has been in the news because of a new controversy, however. The economist Thomas Piketty, author of the non-fiction best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has refused to accept the award of the Legion d’honneur.
Thomas Piketty is quoted as saying that he refused the Legion d’honneur because he does not think that it is “the government’s role to decide who is honorable.”
The New York Times reports that: “The Legion of Honor, which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte, has a history of controversy. Several notable French citizens, including Claude Monet, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, have rejected it for various reasons, including not wanting to be linked to the government of the day. Mr. Sartre also refused the Nobel Prize for Literature. And there is a tradition of Britons like the singer David Bowie rejecting royal honors.”
Franco-American political relations and economic situations may affect differing perceptions of the Legion d’honneur. Piketty’s refusal must sting for President François Hollande’s government, amid the continuing economic crisis and slow recovery in France. Le Monde reports that “Le refus par Thomas Piketty de recevoir la Légion d’honneur, pour laquelle il avait été proposé dans la promotion du 1er janvier, a suscité des réactions aigres-douces de la part de plusieurs membres du gouvernement.” This refusal suggests both the continuing importance of the Legion d’honneur and its implication in economic and educational policy-making and politics, both within France and in international contexts.
The Legion d’honneur website provides information on the award and the organization. The Sénateur Esther Benbassa’s website posted photos of Denis Crouzet’s induction ceremony. The New York Times and Le Monde report on Thomas Piketty’s refusal of the award.