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Explained: Sisi, Macron and the dubious history of France's Legion of Honour

News that France granted the Egyptian leader an honorific medal has sparked outrage. But the grand cross has a long history of being handed out to questionable figures
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Elysee Presidential Palace on 7 December 2020 in Paris (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may be back in Cairo, but his visit last week to France continues to make waves.

The Egyptian leader was welcomed in Paris with much fanfare between 6 and 8 December, with French President Emmanuel Macron heavily criticised for saying he would not condition the future sale of weapons to Egypt on human rights.

But the news that sparked the most furore online has been the revelation by Egyptian state media that Sisi had been granted a Legion d'Honneur - the Legion of Honour, 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 culture minister - subsequently announced on Monday that they were returning their medals in protest, citing the 2016 torture and death of Italian student Giulio Regeni, suspected to have been killed by Egyptian security forces.

In the wake of the news coming out, little background has been given on the meaning and history behind the particular medal granted to the Egyptian leader, with some social media users and international news outlets depicting the event as singling out Sisi for approval.

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In reality, Sisi's decoration is part of a long and controversial French diplomatic tradition that remains shrouded in secrecy.

What is the Legion of Honour?

Established in 1802 under Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion of Honour is the most prestigious state award in France, meant to recognise members of the military and civilians for their "eminent services" to the nation. The official website of the Legion of Honour 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 Honour. Two other dignitary titles are set apart, those of grand officer and grand cross.

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

Tweet on the legion of honour

Augias and Melandri have returned their medals as knights and officers of the Legion of Honour respectively. Sisi reportedly received the grand cross of the Legion of Honour.

While the three ranks of the Legion of Honour are given based on merit, the grand officers and grand crosses are in a separate category, attributed as a diplomatic gesture at the discretion of the Grand Master of the Legion of Honour: the French president.

The Grand Chancellery of the Legion of Honour told news channel France 24 in 2017 that grand 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 far less public affair than other Legions of Honour. There typically aren't public ceremonies to give these medals, and there is no requirement for France's Official Journal to make an announcement when they have been granted.

In 2017, Macron announced that attribution of the Legion of Honour would become more selective, but the plan to hand out fewer of these medals has not extended to the grand cross category, in the name of ensuring "diplomatic reciprocity".

Who has received the grand cross?

The award of the grand cross to Sisi is therefore in the tradition of distinguishing foreign heads of state during diplomatic visits to France, even if many question whether such an honour is truly necessary for a leader accused of heavy-handed repression in his own country.

Some French officials have in the past highlighted how the Legion of Honour - grand cross or otherwise - has become a significant gesture of goodwill 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 Honour is prestigious! It's a real tool of influence. It's part of the protocol with most countries, during every state visit in France."

Sisi is far from the only questionable recipient of this medal. Many heads of state with a history of violating human rights have received the grand cross from the so-called "country of human rights".

Known recipients include Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Spain's General Franco, and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu.

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

A number of honourees also hail from Middle East and North African countries, including late Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted during 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 rare 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 Honour was only made public by the Syrian embassy to France in 2009, while speaking to Beatrice Wattel, the author of a book on the grand cross.

A handout picture released on the Syrian President Facebook page on 19 April 2018 shows a representative of Syria's foreign affairs returning France's grand cross of the legion of honour (AFP)
A handout picture released on the Facebook page of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 19 April 2018 shows a Syrian representative returning France's grand cross of the Legion of Honour (AFP)

Assad's medal was returned to France via the intermediary of a representative from Romania in April 2018, with the Syrian president, embattled in a devastating years-long war, saying it was "no honour" for him to wear the award of a country that is a US "slave".

While the protocol of the Legion of Honour was amended in 2010 to allow for recipients to be stripped of the honorific title, that process also remains extremely opaque, meaning that, should a future French president choose to reverse Macron's decision on honouring Sisi, we may not hear about it.

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