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Lapel Époque – An Irishman’s Diary about the French honours system

The French ambassador Stéphane Crouzat bestowing an honour on Seán Mac Cárthaigh

The diary was excited to be invited to the French ambassador’s residence this week for the conferring of the Ordre de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, one of that country’s greatest honours.

No, alas, it wasn’t being conferred on the diarist, who despite extensive reading of Proust and many years of being an “Ami de France” was overlooked again, inexplicably (although between ourselves, the suspicion is that a few intemperate words, uttered in the aftermath of a certain handball incident in Paris in 2009, have been held against us and entered on a file somewhere).

Instead, the two recipients on this occasion – both very worthy in their own way - were Seán Mac Cárthaigh, formerly of this newspaper and now director of public affairs with the Arts Council – and Sinéad Mac Aodha, director of Literature Ireland.  

In keeping with a tradition that goes back to Napoleon, who reformed the older, aristocratic honours system, both were awarded quasi-military knighthoods, with medals.

Their rank was then sealed with a Gallic embrace – the full two-cheek salute – from the ambassador, Stéphane Crouzat.

Of course, some French award conferrals are better watched than received. My historic favourite is that of Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “bravest of the brave”. Convicted of treason for his part in the events of 1815, he was sentenced to death. But in the supreme honour for a soldier, he was then allowed to give the order for his own execution. Before doing so, he protested innocence of any disloyalty. He had fought “a hundred battles for France”, none against, he said. And in his place, I would have been tempted to list the 100 battles, giving my escape committee time to show up. Instead, Ney proceeded quickly to his famous last words: “Soldiers, fire!”

Becoming a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres is not as demanding as that. But in its own way, it does carry a reminder of mortality. The accompanying medal is not for everyday use, I’m told. Etiquette dictates you should wear it only twice – the first on the occasion of the conferring, the second when you’re dead.

During the lapse of time – if any – between those events, you may merely hint at your status by means of obscenely discreet metal lapel ribbons. These are smaller than the smallest designer-clothes logos. Yet somehow, luckily, they’re just as noticeable at parties.

Mind you, outside France, the colour-coded lapel clips are often mistaken for lint, or for tags from the dry cleaners. In fact overseas laundries are a menace to the French honours system, because they often remove the offending objects, assuming that to be part of their job.

The good news for bereft honourees is that they can buy replacement ribbons, and indeed medals, albeit only from a specialist shop in Paris. The shop doesn’t even ask for proof of entitlement: anyone can buy them, although unauthorised use has its risks. You won’t suffer the fate of Marshal Ney, exactly, but impersonating a French honouree can cost a year in jail.

The Gallic system is not all about arts and letters. On the contrary, those are its least common awards. They give out a maximum 960 worldwide every year and the two this week were the only Irish ones of 2017. 

Paradoxically, the more prestigious Légion d’Honneur – France’s ultimate tribute – is also more widespread, at 3,000 a year. There are different awards for excellence in agriculture, academia, and bureaucratic life too. All have multiple levels. Chevalier is the entry point, but if you excel long enough, you can progress through several promotions, each with a better class of lapel decoration.

As when any foreign honours are bestowed on Irish people, these ones always provoke the question of why we have never been able to devise our own scheme. Feargal Quinn’s Gradam an Uachtaráin proposal of 2015 being the latest not to succeed.

It can’t be modesty, surely. So is it cynicism – a fear that any honours system would be hijacked by politics? Or have we become more republican than even the French, distrustful of anything hierarchical?  

It was long considered a social crime in Ireland to get above your “station”. Maybe that lingers. In any case, it seems our national talent is for insult rather than praise. The nearest thing we have to a chivalric honours system is a negative one, wherein you get demoted through several levels of infamy until some last, egregious misstep. After that, you attain the rank of BHO, Bollocks of the Highest Order. Identifying lapel pins are not usually required.