British fashion designer John Galliano, who was convicted of making anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bar last year, has been stripped of his Légion d’Honneur award, France’s highest honour.
British fashion designer John Galliano has become one of the few recipients of the Légion d’Honneur to have his award effectively retracted, after French President François Hollande signed a decree stripping him of the country’s highest honour.

Galliano was given the award in January, 2009 by former president Nicolas Sarkozy for his contributions to haute couture. Hollande’s decision to strip the designer of his Légion d’Honneur stems from Galliano’s conviction in a French court last year, for making anti-Semitic comments. Caught up in scandal, Galliano watched as he lost his job at Dior and his reputation crumbled. Now, he has also lost the right to wear his Légion d’Honneur medal.

To be stripped of the Légion d’Honneur is no small comeuppance. It is roughly the French equivalent to the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom, or a knighthood in Britain.

“It’s a very prestigious decoration that represents extraordinary public service”, Edward Berenson, director of New York University’s Institute of French Studies, told FRANCE 24. “It has often gone to military members and people in the field of science and the arts. It’s been broadened to include more categories over time”.

The Légion d’Honneur actually began in the early 19th century as an institution that exclusively rewarded military figures for extreme acts of bravery over the course of their careers. In 1962, the Order of the Légion d’Honneur was updated and expanded to more or less what it is today.

Because of its stature in French society, the Légion d’Honneur is prone to spark controversy. There are some who simply disagree with the Order’s choices. Others have long petitioned for candidates who have yet to be recognised. The honour has even, on occasion, been turned down as a political statement. Just last month, industrial occupational health expert and director of research at France’s National Institute for Health and Medical Research, Annie Thébaud-Mony, dismissed the award as a means to pressure the government to “challenge the impunity that until now has protected those who carry out industrial crimes”.

There has also been speculation that some have been honoured as personal favours by powerful politicians. Eric Woerth, who served as labour minister under Sarkozy, found himself embroiled in scandal after decorating L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt’s financial advisor, Patrice de Maistre in 2008. Woerth came under pressure to resign after it emerged that his wife was recruited by Maistre’s firm two months before he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. The fact that the minister had backed Maistre’s candidature was seen as a major conflict of interest, if not quid pro quo for hiring his spouse.

Despite all the brouhaha surrounding the Légion d’Honneur, there are few recipients who have actually been stripped of their decorations. Hollande’s decree has thrust Galliano into an unenviable position alongside such notorious figures as Maurice Papon. Once prominent in French politics, Papon was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity in 1998 for authorising the deportation of 1,690 Jews to a detention camp in the Paris suburb of Drancy during World War II. Although forced to relinquish his status as Légion d’Honneur, many were left outraged after Papon’s death in 2007, when he was buried with his medal.

In the midst of Galliano’s trial for anti-Semitic remarks, the designer blamed his outbursts on alcohol and drug abuse, saying he had no memory of what had happened. Since then, he has tried to keep a low profile, perhaps in the hope that public recollection of his actions will one day be as dim as his own. After the loss of his Légion d’Honneur, however, it looks as though that day is still some way off.