Francois Hollande 'quietly' awards France's highest honour to visiting Saudi Crown Prince

Just two months ago France was among the most vocal in condemning Saudi Arabia's New Year's mass executions

France has been accused of devaluing its highest national honour after the Legion of Honour was quietly awarded to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on a visit to Paris.

The French government was among the most vocal outside the Middle East in its condemnation of Saudi mass executions earlier this year, calling the kingdom’s killing of 47 people “deeply deplorable”.

Yet almost two months to the day after that statement was issued, President François Hollande awarded his nation’s most prestigious award to the heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Naif.

The Crown Prince’s visit to the Elysee Palace actually took place on Friday 4 March, the same day as Mr Hollande held talks with Angela Merkel about how to cope with the refugee crisis.

But while Ms Merkel’s trip featured in a number of videos and photos posted online by the Elysee social media team, any reference or evidence of the Saudi delegation was conspicuously absent.

That the Prince even received the award was only confirmed by Mr Hollande’s entourage on Sunday afternoon. Officials sought to play it down, telling Le Monde it was “common protocol” to issue visiting dignitaries with the honour.

But while in France the decoration was done, as media outlets put it, “with discretion”, the government-owned Saudi news agency SPA hailed the honour as recognition for the prince’s “great efforts in the region and world for combating extremism and terrorism”.

The Legion of Honour was founded by Napoleon in 1802, and is regarded as among the first and most prestigious modern orders of merit in the world.

Last week, before the Crown Prince received his from the order’s Grand Master Hollande personally, it was awarded to groups of World War Two veterans in Cornwall and Oxfordshire in recognition of their role in the D-Day landings.

In both France and the UK, there was anger on Sunday night at the decision to award the symbolically significant medal to the deputy leader of a country which has executed 70 people since the start of the year.

Twitter user Carmen Renieri called it a “day of shame for France”, while Jane Grover wrote that the decoration “makes the legion d’honneur worthless”.

In its report from the Crown Prince’s visit, SPA said the two sides “reviewed bilateral relations between the Kingdom and France and ways of enhancing and developing them in all fields, particularly joint cooperation for combating extremism and terrorism”.

“The French President and the Crown Prince also discussed the latest developments in the Middle East and exerted efforts towards them in addition to the two countries stances towards them,” it said.

The visit was a “success”, said Saudi minister of culture and information Adel al-Toraifi, and included discussions of “investment”. 

Neither report made mention of the refugee crisis, throughout which Saudi Arabia been accused of failing to take its fair share of asylum seekers. And given the “discretion” surrounding the visit, it is not known whether Mr Hollande felt able to bring up the Saudi human rights record.