Philippe Pétain received the award for his service as France’s military leader in World War I, but he was stripped of it — and imprisoned — after World War II for working with the country’s Nazi conquerors as leader of the Vichy government. Maurice Papon, who held several positions in French government, had his honor revoked after being convicted in 1998 of taking part in sending Jews to concentration camps.
But some non-French recipients, like Mr. Assad and Mr. Noriega, were the subject of doubts in real time, not just in hindsight.
For French honorees, the award — known formally as the National Order of the Legion of Honour — is for “outstanding merit acquired in the service of the nation,” and foreigners can receive it for services to or causes supported by France. (The list of American recipients is heavy on show business figures like Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, Jerry Lewis and Martin Scorsese.)
But, as the order’s website explains, there is another route to the prize. “State visits are also an occasion for conferring the Legion of Honor upon official figures, pursuant to diplomatic reciprocity and thereby supporting the foreign policy of France,” it says.
A spokeswoman for the order said, “it’s a way to show the two countries maintain relations.”
Though the honor is, at least in name, bestowed by the French president, the order effectively takes the lead in making most choices. But the medals awarded in state visits are given at the government’s discretion.
In 2001, Jacques Chirac, then the president of France, presented the Legion of Honor to Mr. Assad, who had taken power the year before. Little was known at the time about Mr. Assad, who had inherited the leadership of an oppressive government that was long headed by his father, but Western governments were eager to improve relations with Syria.
France recently began the process of revoking Mr. Assad’s medal, after joining with the United States and Britain last week in missile strikes on Syria, in retaliation for what is believed to be the latest instance in which the Assad government used chemical weapons on civilians. He has called such accusations baseless.
Rather than wait for that process to play out, Mr. Assad returned the medal, the diplomatic equivalent of quitting before being fired. In a statement, the Syrian Foreign Ministry described the award as a decoration given by a “follower of the United States that supports terrorists.”
In giving out honors, the risk of regret is higher with a prize awarded as liberally as the Legion’s green, white and gold medal on a red ribbon. The honor can be given each year to as many as 2,600 French citizens, who become members of the Order of the Legion, and up to 320 foreigners, who are honorees but not members.
Until last year, the maximum number of recipients each year was higher.
The Legion, created by Napoleon in 1802, has gone to more than one million people. French officials have estimated that there are about 93,000 living recipients.
The order does not reveal how many of the awards have been revoked.
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