Explained: Sisi, Macron and the dubious history of the Legion of Honor of France

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may be back in Cairo, but his visit to France last week continues to make waves.
The Egyptian leader was greeted with great fanfare in Paris between December 6 and 8, as French President Emmanuel Macron came under heavy criticism for saying he would not make the future arms sale to Egypt conditional on human rights. the man.

But the news that caused the most uproar online was the revelation by Egyptian state media that Sisi had been awarded a Legion of Honor – the Legion of Honor, one of the highest orders of merit in France.

Two prominent Italian figures – Corrado Augias, a journalist and former member of the European Parliament, and Giovanna Melandri, a former Minister of Culture – later announced on Monday that they were returning their medals in protest, citing torture and death of Italian student Giulio in 2016. Regeni, suspected of being killed by Egyptian security forces.

Following the news release, little context was given on the meaning and history of the particular medal awarded to the Egyptian leader, with some social media and international media users describing the event as nominating Sisi for endorsement.

In fact, Sissi’s decoration is part of a long – and controversial – French diplomatic tradition that remains shrouded in secrecy.

What is the Legion of Honor?

Created in 1802 under Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion of Honor is the most prestigious state award in France, intended to recognize soldiers and civilians for their “eminent service” to the nation. The official website of the Legion of Honor estimates that more than one million people have received the Order of Merit since its inception, with some 92,000 recipients alive today.

The Legion is divided into three ranks: Knight, Officer and Commander of the Legion of Honor. Two other titles of dignitary are set apart, those of Grand Officer and Grand Cross.

Some social media users have metaphors used to explain the distinction.

Augias and Melandri returned their medals as Knights and Officers of the Legion of Honor respectively. But Sissi, on the other hand, would have received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.

While the three ranks of the Legion of Honor are awarded on the basis of merit, Grand Officers and Grand Crosses are in a separate category, awarded as a diplomatic gesture at the discretion of the Grand Master of the Legion of Honor. : the French president.

The Grand Chancellery of the Legion of Honor told the France 24 news channel in 2017 that the large crosses remained “the prerogative of the President of the Republic” – namely, Macron.

There are no official statistics on how many Grand Crosses have been awarded, as they remain a much less public affair than other Legions of Honor. There are usually no public ceremonies to present these medals, and the Official Journal of France is not required to make an announcement when they have been awarded.

In 2017, Macron announced that the award of the Legion of Honor would become more selective, but the plan to distribute fewer of these medals did not extend to the category of the large cross, in the name of “diplomatic reciprocity. “.

Who received the big cross?

The attribution of the big cross to Sisi is therefore in the tradition of distinguishing foreign heads of state during diplomatic visits to France, even if many wonder if such an honor is really necessary for a leader accused of severe repression. in his own country.

Some French officials have in the past underlined how the Legion of Honor – grand-cross or otherwise – has become an important goodwill gesture in the arsenal of French diplomacy.

“I spend my time giving decorations!” a French diplomat told France Info in 2018 on condition of anonymity. “For foreigners, the Legion of Honor is prestigious! It is a real tool of influence. This is part of the protocol with most countries, during each state visit to France.

Sissi is far from the only dubious recipient of this medal. Many heads of state with a history of human rights abuses have been awarded the Great Cross of the so-called “land of human rights”.

The known recipients are the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the Spanish general Franco and the Romanian Nicolae Ceausescu.

In a scenario similar to Sisi’s, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own medal also sparked controversy in 2006 when footage of the ceremony leaked to Russian media, while French journalists were not informed.

A number of the laureates are also from countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including the late Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – who was ousted in the 2011 uprising after 23 years of rule – in 1989; and then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Nayef in 2016.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is one of the few recipients of the Grand Cross to have seen it revoked, at Macron’s request in 2018.

Given in a private ceremony by then French President Jacques Chirac in 2001, Assad’s Legion of Honor was not made public by the Syrian Embassy in France until 2009, when she was addressing Béatrice Wattel, the author of a book on the great cross.

A photo document posted on the Syrian president’s Facebook page on April 19, 2018 shows a Syrian representative bringing back the large French cross of the Legion of Honor (AFP)

Assad’s medal was returned to France through a representative of Romania in April 2018, with the Syrian president besieged in a devastating multi-year war, saying it was “no honor” for him to carry the reward of a country which is an American “slave”.

While the Legion of Honor protocol was amended in 2010 to allow recipients to be stripped of the honorary title, this process also remains extremely opaque – meaning that if a future French president chooses to reverse the decision to Macron to honor Sissi, we might not hear about it.



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