ROME – Two prominent Italian intellectuals announced Monday they were returning their Legion of Honor awards to France to protest that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was given the prize despite his government's human rights abuses.
Corrado Augias, a longtime journalist for La Repubblica daily and onetime European Parliamentarian for Italy’s center-left, returned his prize to the French Embassy on Monday. Giovanna Melandri, a former Italian culture minister and the president of Rome's Maxxi contemporary art museum, announced she would follow suit.
Both cited Egypt’s role in the 2016 kidnapping, torture and killing of an Italian doctoral research student in Cairo, as well as the regime's other human rights violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for el-Sissi's two-day visit last week and awarded him the highest French honor during a closed-door ceremony Sept. 7 that only became public after the Egyptian presidency published photos of it.
Also last week, Rome prosecutors formally placed four high-ranking members of Egypt’s security forces under investigation over the death of Giulio Regeni, whose 2016 killing strained relations between Rome and Cairo and galvanized Italy's human rights community.
Speaking outside the French Embassy, Augias said he returned his 2007 prize out of “a sense of indignation,” given that the award was bestowed on el-Sissi at the same time that Rome prosecutors were detailing the torture that Regeni suffered to a parliamentary committee.
“The two things together were too strong,” he told reporters. “I couldn't refrain from reacting."
Melandri said in a Facebook post Monday that she too would return the honor she received in 2003, saying it was sad but necessary to make clear that “honor" should mean something.
“I hope that this gesture can help open a frank and friendly confrontation in our two countries on which values should be that we want to defend, strengthen and continue to ‘honor' in a democratic Europe and a globalized world," she wrote.
El-Sissi’s state visit had sparked protests by human rights activists incensed that France was welcoming el-Sissi despite the heaviest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history. At the time, it wasn’t known that Macron had awarded el-Sissi the highest distinction of the Legion of Honor order of merit, the Grand-Croix, or Grand-Cross.
The award ceremony was held without the press before dinner at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris. The event was not listed on Macron’s official agenda.
The French presidency said such a ceremony is usually part of the protocol during state visits.
The French ambassador to Italy, Christian Masset, said he respected Augias and defended the government's human rights record.
“France is on the front lines for human rights and makes no compromises,” he tweeted after Augias returned his prize. “Many cases were discussed during President el-Sissi’s visit to Paris, in the most appropriate and efficient way.”
The Legion of Honor has been given to French war heroes, writers, artists and businessmen. But it has also been given to leaders with questionable human rights records, including Syrian President Bashar Assad (though he returned it in 2018) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
France has on occasion also stripped people of the honor, including Harvey Weinstein in 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo sexual misconduct accusations against him.
During the visit, France and Egypt signed contracts for French development aid and hospital and transport cooperation.
At his news conference with el-Sissi, Macron justified such cooperation and ruled out making it conditional on human rights issues, saying Egypt is France’s key partner in the fight against extremism.
“It would be ineffective in terms of human rights and counterproductive in the fight against terrorism — that’s why I won’t do that,” he said.
Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.