The Big Question: How does the French honours system work, and why has Kylie been decorated?

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The Independent Online

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 Egalité?

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 Légion 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 Légion 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 Légion 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 Légion 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.

Foreign "members" have one privilege, however. They don't have to "buy" their insignia. The French state gives them their medal and small button-hole rosette as a token of esteem. French recipients have to pay for their insignia. The cost is secret but is said to be "around €100" (£80). This is a little less than the cost of buying a Legion d'honneur medal on eBay.

What other honours do the French have?

Other civilian awards include the Ordre national du Mérite (for distinguished service to the French state) and the Ordre des Palmes Académiques (for distinguished academic work). There are also the Ordre du Mérite Agricole and Ordre du Mérite Maritime (which speak for themselves). In French protocol, the arts and letters order is the most junior of them all.

There are no longer knighthoods or peerages in France, or at least none recognised by the state. There are, however, parts of the "beaux quartiers" of Paris where every third person still claims the right to be called a "comte" or "comtesse".

Who gets the national awards?

For many years, the Légion d'honneur was, like the Order of the British Empire, a question of buggin's turn for senior civil servants and local politicians, senior Catholic churchmen and military personnel. Members of the national assembly are, curiously, barred from joining the Legion d'honneur while in office but receive an automatic appointment when they leave.

The other, more junior, honours are self-explanatory and provide a useful means of recognising the work of the French great and good. The system has been called into question in recent years, because it has come to be dominated by grey men in suits. Only about one in 10 of members of the Legion d'honneur are women. M. Sarkozy, as part of his drive to wake up France, has promised to make the appointments younger, more female and more surprising.

Is the honours system popular?

Overall, the system is popular, especially with those who receive the awards. In any gathering of distinguished, older French people, it is common to see the tell-tale, tiny maroon rosette of the Legion in several button-holes.

Since the French are the French, however, and republican values are interpreted in different ways, there have been many high-profile refuseniks. Over the years, they have included George Sand, Pierre and Marie Curie, Guy de Maupassant, Claude Monet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Brigitte Bardot.

Many reasons were given, but the most common is a refusal to accept the notion that the state should elect an elite. The libertarian poet Jacques Prevert once said of the Légion d'honneur: "It is all very well to refuse one. It is much better not to have been chosen in the first place."

Other names from the cultural world to scoop the award

* Kylie Minogue is not the first popular musician to receive an honour from the French. Others include Bob Dylan, who received the senior rank of Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1990, and David Bowie, who was granted the same award in 1999

* Artists to have been honoured include the US abstract painter Jackson Pollock and the German painter Georg Baselitz

* The novelists Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro are among the past recipients, along with Julian Barnes, who was given the rank of Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1995

* Many of Hollywood's finest have made the list, including Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep

* Recent celebrity recipients have been the British actor Jude Law and his US counterpart, George Clooney. Both were presented with the same award as Minogue last year