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A look at the Legion of Honor, France's most storied medal

A look at the French Legion of Honor, among Europe's most prestigious and storied medals

A look at the Legion of Honor, France's most storied medal

PARIS (AP) -- France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honor, or "Legion d'Honneur," was awarded to U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, their friend Anthony Sadler and British businessman Chris Norman for subduing a gunman on a high-speed train carrying hundreds of passengers to Paris.

As well as being one of Europe's most prestigious awards, here's a look at why the red-ribboned, five-prong medal is also one of the continent's most storied and colorful.



The medal was first created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 as the dust settled from the French Revolution. The egalitarian-minded revolutionaries abolished all the orders of chivalry that were linked with the nobility -- and the feared general created the new system of awards based on merit, not social status.

The medal itself was designed by French painter Jacques-Louis David.

As emperor, Napoleon always proudly wore the Legion of Honor on his breast. Over the centuries, tens of thousands have been given out.



What do Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger have in common? No, they haven't all starred in the same movie -- but they are able to compare the same medal, each of them having been awarded the Legion of Honor.

Other famous Americans that have been given France's top honor include many entertainment figures such as singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, actor Robert Redford, novelist Toni Morrison, directors Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and jazz musician Miles Davis.

But many have also been given to notable figures such as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, economist Alan Greenspan, and former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, France gave the Legion of Honor to all U.S. veterans who fought on French soil during World War II.

According to the website of the French Embassy in Washington, the medal is to "recognize outstanding services rendered to France."



The medal has over the years has its fair share of controversy. Last year, Lance Armstrong was stripped of the Legion of Honor that he was awarded in in 2005, the last year of his seven consecutive Tour de France victories. He was later stripped of those titles for doping.

Disgraced fashion designer John Galliano was also stripped of his medal in 2012 after being convicted of anti-Semitism following a drunken tirade at a Paris bar in 2011.

In 2013, France awarded energy company Novatek's co-founder Gennady Timchenko the country's top award for his contribution to Franco-Russian economic ties, two years after France's Total struck a deal with them. Timchenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been on a U.S. sanctions list.



Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler and Norman were all awarded the lowest grade -- "Knight" -- of the Legion of Honor, which is divided into five divisions.

The other four in increasing importance is "Officer," ''Commander," ''Grand Officer," and, the highest, the "Grand Cross," which features a flamboyant red sash and a ruby badge.

There is technically a sixth division, the "Grand Master," made up of just one person: President Francois Hollande. All French presidents become "Grand Masters" to symbolize their status as head of the legion.



The vast majority of recipients of the honor dress to the occasion -- with men appearing in a suit and tie to be decorated by France's president for the once-in-a-lifetime event.

Monday's ceremony in Paris' Elysee Palace was a blinding exception, with social media lighting up about Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler receiving the award in unbuttoned polo shirts and khaki pants.


Thomas Adamson can be followed at

Updated : 2021-09-20 22:36 GMT+08:00