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France starts process of revoking Legion of Honor award from Syrian dictator Assad

The French government has started the process required to strip Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of his Legion of Honor award. The Legion of Honor is the highest award given by the French government. (Francois Mori/AFP/Getty Images)

The government of French President Emmanuel Macron has started the process required to strip Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of his Legion of Honor award. This comes just days after France joined the United States and the United Kingdom in launching missile strikes against Assad’s government.

What is the Legion of Honor?

The Legion of Honor (French: Légion d’Honneur) is the highest award given by the French government. It was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

In November, the French government announced that it was drastically reducing the number of awards it gave out each year and raising the bar for what qualified a person to receive one. The change happened after the country successfully stripped Harvey Weinstein of his Legion of Honor. Before this, French presidents would bestow the award on about 3,000 people per year.

Why was Assad awarded a Legion of Honor in the first place?

In 2001, Assad was given the award by French President Jacques Chirac. Consequently, Chirac also tried to secretly award the Legion of Honor to Assad’s staunch ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. French presidents have had a lot of leeway to give out the award as a tool to advance diplomacy.

While he may not have been blatantly gassing his own civilians back then, Assad was far from exemplary even in 2001. In November of that year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Assad to “restrain” Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations active in Syria. Assad instead praised these groups as “resistance fighters.”

He also told Blair his country found "the killing of innocent Afghan civilians carried out during allied air strikes” to be unacceptable, according to the Telegraph. He seems to have gotten over his qualms about civilian deaths since then. More than half a million people have been killed in the now more than seven-year-long Syrian Civil War, with nearly 85 percent of those being civilians who have died at the hands of Assad’s regime.

Can France revoke the award?

Originally, the Legion of Honor was awarded permanently. That changed in 2010, when former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was extradited to France — while still technically bearing the Legion of Honor he was given in 1987.

Since this incident, the rules surrounding the award have been adjusted so that it can be revoked from a non-French citizen who has been “sentenced for a crime or to a prison term of at least one year without possibility of parole” or has “committed acts or behaved in such a way that could be declared dishonorable, or could damage the interests of France abroad or the causes that France supports throughout the world.”

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