On the 29 floréal An X under the Revolutionary calendar, or the 19th of May, 1802, Napoléon Bonaparte, in his role as First Consul, established the Légion d’honneur as a way of recognizing military or civil merit. There are five levels: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross). During Napoléon’s day, the highest order was the Grand Aigle, (Grand Eagle). Recipients received financial recognition as well as a snazzy-looking decoration and a red ribbon. The decoration, called a “jewel” has five arms to distinguish it from a religious award. Critics referred to these as “baubles,” and Napoléon is quoted as saying that, “it is with such baubles that one leads men.” At the time, men’s fashions favored wearing military and other honors; Napoléon always wore his Grand Aigle.
Traditionally, the President of the Republic is the Grand Master of the Order, and Nicholas Sarkozy fulfills that role today. (Update – that’s now François Hollande) One enters at the level of Chevalier, but one can rise upon proof of further meritorious service to France. Foreigners cannot receive the Légion, proprement dit, but can receive the Insignia. Foreign Heads of state and their spouses receive the Grand Croix as a courtesy. At present, 67 people hold the Grand Croix compared with over 74,000 Chevaliers. There are even two elite boarding schools for the children or grandchildren of the recipients. Since it’s such a big deal to receive the award, it’s an offence to wear one without the right and one can lose the Légion d’honneur upon conviction of a felony and sometimes for misdemeanors.
Today’s expression, en tout bien tout honneur (ohn too beeN toot honurh), literally means “in all good all honor.” Idiomatically it means “with no hidden motive.” A recent French finance minister got in trouble because it appeared he may have put someone forward for a Légion d’honneur in exchange for a high profile job for his wife. The scandal led to the end of his political career, even though he strenuously denied any impropriety. There can be no hidden motives, or even the implication of them, involved in the nomination for an award of merit.