The news put into perspective every Saturday, thanks to the historian Fabrice d’Almeida.
Reading time: 5 min
The National Order of Merit is 60 years old. The opportunity is too good to return to the history of one of the French national decorations, these decorations which fascinate so many people, not only since Napoleon created the Legion of Honor in 1802, but undoubtedly also since the King John II the Good founded the Order of the Star in 1351, the first order in French history.
Because decorations are not only “rattles” with which “we lead the men”, as Napoleon said to defend the idea that all republics have had decorations and distinctions for their deserving citizens. They are also signs of recognition, positive sanctions which are good for the morale of those who receive them.
This is why badges of distinction have multiplied throughout history. The Third and Fourth Republics added many. Almost all ministries had theirs, and sometimes several as in the Ministry of the Armed Forces, the Navy or National Education. So much so that de Gaulle, upon coming to power, wanted to put things in order: he grouped 17 decorations into one, the National Order of Merit, which would be with the Legion of Honor and the Order of Companions of the Liberation, one of three national orders.
For General de Gaulle, the reform of the Order took on several dimensions. She must first clarify and prioritize the decorations in importance. At the top: the three national orders, then come the ministerial decorations, then other insignia. Thus, the legitimacy of the State would be strengthened. Five years after the birth of the Fifth Republic, it was also the possibility of attaching elites to the regime who would be grateful to see themselves celebrated in this way. In the wake of the creation, the general appointed the council of the Order by carrying out the first decorations, July 27, 1964, in a salon of the Elysée. General Catrou was made Grand Cross and would take care of the new institution.
The presentation of the distinction, or its refusal, can become events
The two annual promotions, in November and May, are on the lookout. There are the forgotten and the discontented. Those who publicly refuse it, such as actress Sandrine Kiberlain who refused the distinction in 2021. Or Eddy Mitchell, in the 1990s: too military for him. Or the director Cyril Dion, to demonstrate his disagreement with the government, in 2019.
But above all there are the happy graduates who, after having filled out the papers and bought their medal, organize the award ceremony. These awards are sometimes media events, as when in 1988 Charles Pasqua presented his badges to Mireille Mathieu; or when in 1993 François Mitterrand handed over his Grand Cross insignia to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. On this occasion, in front of the cameras, the president slips in a dig: “Thus, you have joined the cohort of your predecessors. Then, the merits, it is History which will tell them !” Beyond the banderilla planted on the back of Edouard Balladur, Mitterrand stated an obvious truth: of the great, it is history that ends up being the judge.
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