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Legion of shame: Russian warmongers still hold highest French award

After the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that he might strip Vladimir Putin of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, which the then second-term Russian head-of-state was awarded back in 2006. However, Putin and several high-ranking Russian officials, including Rostec head Sergey Chemezov and foreign intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin, are still holders of the order. Russian Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova, ultra-patriotic film director Nikita Mikhalkov, and multiple other open supporters of the Putin regime have also kept their awards.

  • Naryshkin, Stepashin, Mikhalkov

  • Chemezov, Pamfilova, Gergiev

  • Stripped of their awards


In September 2006, Vladimir Putin arrived in Paris to participate in international consultations regarding the situation in the Middle East and to unveil a monument to the Normandie-Niemen Fighter Regiment, a French aviation grouping that served on the Eastern Front during World War II. On the eve of the consultation, President Jacques Chirac decorated Putin with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, saying that “France highly appreciates the Russian President's contribution to the development of relations based on comprehensive cooperation.” In response, Putin told Chirac: “You have always paid great attention to Russian-French relations, and all I had to do was follow your lead.”

However, as Putin went on to launch a war against Georgia, annex Crimea, bomb Syrian cities, prop up the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, and eventually embark on an unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that the Russian president had different role models.

And yet, to this day, he retains possession of his Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, an emblem established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and awarded to outstanding military, political, cultural, and athletic figures — both French and foreign.

The National Order of the Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur)
The National Order of the Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur)

Aside from Putin, the list of prominent Russian cavaliers of the order includes emperors Alexander I and Nicholas II, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, and President Boris Yeltsin. A source who had access to the 2006 decision-making process told The Insider that multiple French politicians had petitioned for Putin, but Christophe de Margerie, a member of the board of directors of the oil giant Total, had been particularly active, “visiting the Élysée Palace almost daily.” Margerie called himself a friend of Putin and, before his death in a plane crash in Moscow on Oct. 20, 2014, openly spoke out against anti-Russian sanctions. “Imagine Russia without Putin. It would be chaos,” Margerie reportedly said to his acquaintances.

In return, Total received lucrative oil and gas contracts. By the time Putin opted for a full-scale war against Ukraine in February 2022, Russia accounted for 10% of the company's portfolio. Total developed the immense Shtokman gas field together with Russian oil and gas company Gazprom. It owned 20% in the Kharyaga oil project, and partnered with another Russian giant, Lukoil, for a shale exploration effort. After Margerie’s business jet ran into a snowplow during takeoff at Vnukovo Airport, Russia commemorated the Frenchman by naming an Arctic gas tanker after him. Putin attended the christening in person.

Christophe de Margerie and Vladimir Putin
Christophe de Margerie and Vladimir Putin

In February 2023, when Volodymyr Zelensky was receiving his Order of the Legion of Honor, journalists reminded President Macron that Putin, the leader of the aggressor state, still held a similar award. They suggested that Macron should deprive Putin of the order, to which Macron responded that he “could not rule anything out,” and that he was waiting for the “right moment.”

Previously, the French order had been revoked from celebrated British fashion designer John Galliano for his anti-Semitic statements, and from American cyclist Lance Armstrong after his elaborate doping scheme came to light.

More than a year after Macron's statement, Putin’s armies are still spreading death and destruction in Ukraine on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. Yet France has not found a suitable pretext to strip Putin of his honorary award.

Naryshkin, Stepashin, Mikhalkov

Putin is not the only Russian recipient of the Legion of Honor. Sergey Naryshkin, the current head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), received the award in 2007 at a time when his title was Deputy Prime Minister. According to The Insider's sources, Naryshkin’s candidacy had also been backed by Margerie. In 2013, as chairperson of the State Duma, Naryshkin headed the Russian section of the Society of Members of the Legion of Honor and pledged to build stronger ties between Moscow and Paris. Today, however, sitting in the SVR director's chair, he regularly spreads false stories about the country that once saw fit to award him. Without offering any evidence, Naryshkin said in March that France was preparing to deploy approximately 2,000 military personnel to Ukraine.

The French limited themselves to saying that Naryshkin's words were disinformation, but refrained from imposing any additional sanctions against him — let alone strip him of his medal.

Sergey Naryshkin
Sergey Naryshkin

Naryshkin's deputy in the Russian section of the Legion of Honor was another official, MP Leonid Slutsky, who now heads the ultra-nationalist “Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.” As The Insider previously wrote, before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Slutsky arranged flights to Moscow for Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National party, and paid for tours to Crimea and Syria for pro-Kremlin politicians from other European countries. Slutsky also heads the Russian Peace Foundation, which passes along copies of passports of foreign (mostly French) nationals visiting Russia to the GRU, Russia’s notorious military intelligence division.

Back in more friendly times, Slutsky said that France would always remain a loyal friend of Russia. Now that Paris has backed Ukraine, however, Slutsky's rhetoric has changed dramatically. In place of offering friendship, he accuses France of committing “gory massacres” in its former colonies. However, Slutsky has not been compelled to give up the French order – unlike his other good friend, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Former prime minister Sergei Stepashin and filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov also hold the Order of the Legion of Honor. Stepashin headed the Russian government In the late 1990s, then served as the director of Russia's Federal Security Service and as Minister of Justice before spending 13 years as chair of the country’s Accounts Chamber, the parliamentary body tasked with overseeing the Russian government’s finances. In 2005, the French Minister for Small and Medium Enterprises decorated Stepashin with the by-now-familiar state award. In response, the newly minted cavalier promised to fight money laundering.

Presently, Stepashin heads the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society and wholeheartedly supports the invasion of Ukraine. Last May at the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum, he said that Ukraine should be recognized as a terrorist state.

In addition to the French award Stepashin’s ceremonial uniform is adorned with the Korean Order of Diplomatic Service, the Swedish Order of the Polar Star, and the Ukrainian Order of Merit, 2nd class, which was bestowed upon him by Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-friendly former president who fled to Russia in 2014 after failing to violently suppress a months-long protest movement.

Notably, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, has also kept his Ukrainian Order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, 3rd class, awarded to him by President Leonid Kuchma in 2001 “for a significant contribution to the development of cooperation between the Russian FSB and the Security Service of Ukraine in the fight against international terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking,” according to the FSB website. Today Patrushev accuses Ukraine of all sins, including the latest terrorist attack in Moscow's Crocus City Hall, even after the Islamic State Khorasan publicly claimed credit for the massacre.

Meanwhile, film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who was decorated with the French order in 1994, has long declared Europe to be one of Russia's main enemies. His talk show Besogon — “Driver out of Demons” — has gone so far as to question Europeans’ hygiene: “dirty”: “Even under a cheap suit, a Russian man would always wear clean underwear — whereas in Europe, the emphasis was on the suit, the shoes, the tie. No one cared whether you'd washed your underpants.”

Chemezov, Pamfilova, Gergiev

Chevalier of the Legion of Honor Sergey Chemezov met Putin in Dresden in the 1980s, where they both worked for the KGB. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the agents stayed in touch, and once Putin moved from St. Petersburg to the Presidential Administration headquarters in Moscow, he appointed Chemezov as head of foreign economic relations. In 2004, Chemezov headed Rosoboronexport, Russia's state intermediary agency for defense-related exports and imports — the company would become the Rostec State Corporation in 2007.

In March 2010, Chemezov was awarded the Legion of Honor “for a significant contribution to the development of Russian-French cooperation in high-tech manufacturing.” In the same year, Chemezov was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic — “for the successful expansion of the partnership between Rostechnologies Corporation entities and major Italian enterprises.” Rostec is among the main suppliers of weapons for the Russian army. Bombs, missiles, and shells developed by the state corporation are delivering death into the homes of Ukrainians and destroying Western-supplied military equipment on a daily basis. And yet, there has been no serious public push to deprive Chemezov of his foreign awards.

Sergey Chemezov
Sergey Chemezov

The head of Russia’s Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova has also kept her French order, which she received in 2007 in her capacity as head of the Presidential Council for the Promotion of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights.

“The President of the Republic would thus like to pay tribute to Ms. Pamfilova’s civil society development efforts on behalf of a country committed to freedoms and as a sign of friendly feelings towards Russia,” said Jean Cadet, the French ambassador to Russia, at the ceremony. Today, Pamfilova has long since abandoned her human rights endeavors to become a servile public official who obeys Putin's every whim. She vehemently condemns the “revival of Nazism” in Ukraine, calls those who left Russia in opposition to the war “scum,” and describes the Ukrainian president as a “self-reflecting clown dancing to the tune of his Western masters.”

Ella Pamfilova
Ella Pamfilova

Another Russian recipient of the Order of the Legion of Honor, conductor Valery Gergiev, said in 2007 that, “I love Paris. I love France, and I will do everything in my power to promote French music in Russia.”

Today, the maestro no longer mentions his love for France. In 2014, he supported the annexation of Crimea. During the 2018 presidential election, he served as one of Putin's “trusted representatives.” And in March 2022, he participated in a massive pro-war concert in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. As a result, the European public forced Gergiev to resign as principal conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra, while Carnegie Hall, La Scala, and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra stopped working with him.

Stripped of their awards

Unlike his French counterpart, Italian president Sergio Mattarella did not hesitate to revoke the Order of the Star of Italy from Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov, Sberbank CEO Herman Gref, VTB President Andrei Kostin, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, Russian Railways head Oleg Belozerov and a few other high-profile Russians. As grounds for the action, the executive order cited the Russians’ “unworthiness.” However, it remains unclear why the list of “unworthy” individuals did not include Chemezov, who was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2010.

In 2022, Latvia revoked its national awards from Severstal chairman Alexei Mordashov and president of Alfa Bank Pyotr Aven, and the authorities of the Czech city of Ceske Budejovice annulled cosmonaut and politician Valentina Tereshkova’s status of honorary citizen.

It remains unclear when — or if — France will follow the lead of its European partners.

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