French elevate Trimble to `living elite' with the Legion d'honneur

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FIRST Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, last night became an officer of the Legion d'honneur, receiving the highest award that France can bestow.

It is safe to say Mr Trimble is the first Orangeman to receive the honour. Does a neat red ribbon in the left lapel - the order's everyday badge of office - clash with a bowler hat and an orange sash? No more, it seems.

After barely flinching from a kiss on each cheek inflicted by Pierre Moscovici, the French minister for Europe, Mr Trimble said that he accepted the award on behalf of "all the people of Northern Ireland." He said they were a people who, for all their past divisions, shared with the French a strong sense of "patrie" (homeland).

Mr Moscovici, who presented the same award to the SDLP leader, John Hume, last month, paid tribute to Mr Trimble's "courage, intelligence and willpower" and described him as "one of the great artisans of peace" of the late 20th century.

Under the glittering chandeliers of the French foreign ministry, Mr Trimble, his wife and four children were applauded by French government officials, ambassadors and prominent Paris residents from both parts of Ireland.

Mr Trimble was doubly honoured in being one of the few foreigners to become a member of the Legion d'honneur without having a clear French connection. The order was created by the Emperor Napoleon in 1804 in order to establish a "living elite" of the French nation - a kind of meritocracy to replace the aristocracy which the Revolution had guillotined or scattered.

In recent decades foreigners have also been admitted but usually when they have some clear link with France. Mr Hume was once a teacher of French and speaks the language fluently. He is a lifelong Francophile, with many friends in the present Socialist-led French government.

What is Mr Trimble's French connection? Officials admit he does not really have one. "I suppose you could say that Mr Trimble got the award because Mr Hume got the award," one said. "We didn't want to appear partial. Their work in preparing the ground for peace in Northern Ireland was a partnership and they were jointly recognised by the Nobel committee when they got the peace prize last year. We felt we should also recognise them both. In any case, I understand that Mr Trimble also knows France well." Before receiving the award Mr Trimble admitted, however, that he knew France "only like many people, as an occasional tourist".