How Does the French Honours System Work, and Why Has Kylie Been Decorated?
John Lichfield Paris Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
The big question
Why are we asking now?
Kylie Minogue, the Australian actress and pop singer, has just been made a French cultural knight - or "chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et Lettres". She cannot, unfortunately, call herself "Sir Kylie" but she joins the large battalion of foreign popular entertainers - from Ella Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan - who have been given France's premier, national, cultural honour. As Ms Minogue might have remarked: "I should be so lucky...."
What has Kylie done for French culture?
Er, rien. But France has a global concept of culture. You don't have to to be French artist to qualify to be a French cultural "knight". The order, created in 1957, is open to all people who have "distinguished themselves in the domain of artistic or literary creation or for the contribution they have made to the spread of arts and letters in France and the world".
In presenting her with the award, the French Culture minister Christine Albanel described the Australian singer as a "princess of pop", adding: "Everything you touch turns to gold, from your discs to your micro-shorts." This is thought to have been the first mention of micro-shorts during the formal presentation of a French national honour.
Mme Albanel also paid tribute, however, to Ms Minogue's courage in revealing that she was receiving treatment for breast cancer. The minister said she hoped that this would produce a "Kylie effect" in persuading more young women that they should seek cancer screening.
Is an honour really in the spirit of Egalite?
Napoleon Bonaparte reinvented the honours system in 1802, only a few years after the French abolished monarchy and aristocracy. There was much egalitarian muttering when the Consul Napoleon, who was not yet Emperor, decided to create the Legion d'honneur. Was this not a return to the aristocratic titles and class distinctions that the revolution had abolished?
To this, Napoleon is said to have retorted: "With such baubles, you lead men." And, eventually, women. The first woman legionnaire was appointed in 1852.
Is Kylie's award a sign of a shift?
Oui et non. Foreigners and even foreign popular entertainers have been honoured over many decades. Initially, they were expected to have made some original contribution to their field, like Ms Fitzgerald and Mr Dylan. In recent years, the net has been cast wider to include almost anyone who is a) popular in France and b) francophile or at least not overtly francophobe.
The cultural knighthood for a standard pop diva like Ms Minogue is something of a new departure, however. Maybe Carla Bruni- Sarkozy, herself a pop singer, played some part in the choice. However, President Sarkozy made it clear several months ago - long before he married Carla - that he wanted to blow the dust off the French honours system. He refused the first list of new appointees to the Legion d'honneur handed to him. He insisted that it should be brought back with an equal split between men and women.
Are foreign winners treated differently?
In the case of the cultural knighthood, no. In the case of the Legion d'honneur - France's premier military and civil award - yes. Technically, the "legion" is an exclusive club, rather an award: a club which does not accept foreigners. Harold Pinter, and the other foreign "legionnaires", cannot be "members" of the Order of the Legion d' honneur itself. They can only be decorated with its insignia.
Unlike the 114,000 or so French members, the foreign legionnaires do not take an oath to uphold French republican values and to "combat any enterprise seeking to re-establish feudalism" in France.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: How Does the French Honours System Work, and Why Has Kylie Been Decorated?. Contributors: John Lichfield Paris Correspondent - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 8, 2008. Page number: 36. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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