American Center France
Français  |  English

The hub for france-american exchange

Heritage >> Americans in France
L'Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur
L'ordre des Arts et des Lettres
The Arts Arena | Lisa Damon
The origin of national, and later ministerial, orders in Europe can be traced back to the first medieval orders of knighthood, initially created by the Vatican to secure peace and unity across a Western Christendom, literally up in arms. Groups of men chosen for their nobility, military valor, and skill in battle were dispatched to secure routes to the Holy Land for pilgrims and Crusaders. European kings soon caught on to the political appeal of establishing orders to reward allegiance and consolidate power, and these institutions have not only survived but continue to flourish, shifting to fit the power structures of the day.

The French Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honor), created by Napoleon in 1802, was to revive the glory and glitter of rank and status that had been abolished by France’s revolutionary zeal. With a single and universal distinction based on merit rather than birth—in contrast to the royal orders—this award would recognize both military valor and distinguished civilian service. It would uphold the values of the Revolution: equality under the national banner. And no longer would revolutionary France’s dignitaries and consuls look lackluster next to their decorated European counterparts. With Honneur et Patrie (Honor and Country) as its motto, the Order was immediately popular as a symbol of a new French meritocracy, and has held strong through three kings, two emperors, and five republics. From the first, the award was authorized for foreigners.

There are three ranks of merit, from Chevalier (Knight) to Officier (Officer) to Commandeur (Commander), and the two exceptional ranks of Grand-Croix (Grand Cross) or Grand Officier (Grand Officer); the President of the Republic is ipso facto the Order’s Grand Maître. The Order’s business is still conducted in its original location at the Salm mansion on the quai d’Orsay in Paris’ VIIth arrondissement. Burned to the ground during the Commune in 1871, the mansion was later rebuilt from funds raised by members of the Order and today houses its museum, Musée de la Légion d’honneur.  Nominations, promotions, and, when necessary, sanctions are decided by the Council of the Order, composed of 15 commanders, 1 officer, and 1 knight, and presided over by a Grand Chancelier nominated by the President of the Republic. Election to the Order is only a beginning, however, and members are expected to continue their work and to move up in rank.

Each rank is designated by a specific cross. As Grand Maître of the Order, France's sitting President wears the Grand Collier de la Légion d’honneur, which is presented to him upon taking his oath of office. The cross itself is a five-armed "Maltese Cross" in gilt or silver, enamelled white, with an enamelled laurel and oak wreath between the arms. The obverse central disc is in gilt, featuring the head of Marianne—symbol of the French Republic— surrounded by the words République Française on a blue enamel ring. The reverse central disc is also in gilt, with a crossed set of France's blue, white, and red national colors surrounded by the Legion's motto and date of foundation on a blue enamel ring. The cross is suspended by an enamelled laurel and oak wreath, with variations according to level. The Légion d’honneur medal is worn at ceremonial and full dress occasions, while a small red lapel ribbon or rosette (depending on rank), is worn daily, identifying the bearer as a recipient of the highest distinction of merit or valor awarded by the French Republic.

Among the some 10,000 American recipients of the decoration are military and political leaders, inventors, musicians, filmmakers, actors, and writers—figures as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, Alexander Graham Bell, Duke Ellington, Steven Spielberg, Kirk Douglas and Edith Wharton. While it is rare for an ambassador to France to be awarded the Légion d'honneur, a posthumous award was made to U.S. Ambassador Pamela Harriman in 1997, and former U.S. Ambassadors Felix Rohatyn and Arthur A. Hartman have both received the honor.

In addition to national orders, France has ministerial orders recognizing distinction in a specific domain, perhaps the most prestigious being L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters). Established in 1957, the award honors outstanding artistic and literary work and the cultural influence of great artists and writers, both in France and throughout the world. Like its Napoleonic counterpart, the award has three ranks - Chevalier, Officier and, the highest, Commandeur - governed by certain age and promotion restrictions for French recipients, although not for foreign recipients. Thanks to the influence of France’s Minister of Culture André Malraux on President Charles De Gaulle, the Order survived a 1963 decree doing away with most other distinctions for fear that proliferation might reduce their value. L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres remains today a highly coveted honor internationally.

The award is administered by a Council made up of 12 directors from the relevant divisions of the Ministry of Culture (Books, Music, Cinema, Theater, Visual Arts, etc.), from the National Archives, and the National Museums of France, and an additional 13 members named by the Minister of Culture, who announces recipients and promotions on January 1 and July 14 of each year. Nominations can only be made by someone who is already a member of the Order.  The decoration itself is composed of five dark green and four white bands, a rosette, and, for the Commandeurs, a necklet. The insignia is a double cross with eight branches, enamelled in green and set in arabesque silver or gold, depending on rank, with at its center the letters A and L.
American recipients of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres include Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood, Renée Fleming, Jerry Lewis, Norman Mailer, Robert Storr, and Robert Wilson. 


Generals of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, John J. Pershing, Colin Powell, Wesley Clark William Wilson "Buffalo Bill" Quinn, Maxwell D. Taylor, and Norman Schwarzkopf; Colonel Walter Giblin, WWII Deptuy Director O.S.S, and the last surviving American WWI veteran, Frank Buckles.  In 1949, the Academies of West Point and Annapolis were also decorated.  In 1998, France observed the 80th anniversary of the WWI armistice by awarding Légion d'honneur medals to American veterans of that conflict and in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, French president Jacques Chirac saluted the United States for its part in ending World War II by awarding one hundred American veterans with the Légion d'honneur. 

Other fields ranging from science to finance to entertainment, culture, and diplomacy

Elizabeth Arden, Richard Asthalter, Josephine Baker, Alexander Graham Bell, Jim Bittermann, Ben Bradlee,  Julia Child, Merce Cunningham, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Duke Ellington, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Hamilton Fish III, Renee Fleming, Glenn Ford, Jane Goodall, Ulysses S. Grant III, Pamela Harriman, Arthur Hartman, Quincy Jones, Gene Kelly, Jerry Lewis, Charles Lindbergh, Jim Lovell, Norman Mailer, George Marshall, Peter Mayle, Audie Murphy, James H. Polk, Lily Pons, Marjorie Merriweather Post, David Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Felix Rohatyn, Pierre Salinger, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Maxwell D. Taylor, Tony Vaccaro, US war photographer, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Edith Wharton, Elie Wiesel.

Daniel, Jean. La Légion d’honneur: Histoire et organisation de l'ordre national.  Paris: André Bonne, 1948 (Editions Corlet, 2002).
Tulard, Jean, Monnier, François et Echappé, Olivier. La Légion d’honneur: Deux siècles d’histoire. Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 2004.
Singer, Régis.  L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.  Versailles:  Société Nouvelle Mémoire et document, 2006.



American Recipients of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
June Anderson, George Balanchine, Ray Bradbury, George Clooney, Ornette Coleman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood, John Elderfield, T.S. Eliot, Renee Fleming, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Dustin Hoffman, Lincoln Kirstein, Jude Law, Amanda Lear, Norman Mailer, Peter Martins, Sherrill Milnes, Jerome Robbins, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Sylvester Stalone, Danielle Steel, Sharon Stone, Robert Storr, Barbara Streisand, Deborah Voigt, Randy Weston, Bruce Willis, Robert Wilson.
Steering Committee
Advanced Search