President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has received France’s highest award and public distinction, the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, bestowed upon her by the President of the French Republic, His Excellency François Hollande, at a grand ceremony at the Elysée Palace, in Paris, on Wednesday, November 7th.
President Sirleaf was honored for her actions in support of the rights of women, in favor of peace in Liberia and for promoting stability, progress and development in the Mano River Union. The Légion d’Honneur, created by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is awarded to those who have served France or the ideals it upholds.
According to a Dispatch from Paris, the President, in accepting the honor, thanked the French President, the Government and the fraternal people of France. She, in turn, dedicated the prestigious award, and the recognition that it brings, “to the resilient and steadfast people of Liberia; and to women and children and the underprivileged everywhere in Africa and elsewhere, those seeking self-esteem, dignity and a better life.”
Said President Sirleaf: “This honor reinforces my commitment to remain steadfast in championing the cause of humanity, and advocating for social justice and the exercise of inalienable rights without precondition. My campaign is strengthened by this award, and I feel assured of the support of the French Republic, of your support, Mr. President, the support of freedom-loving people everywhere. This award serves as an inspiration in the great task that remains before us.”
In his remarks, French President Hollande said it was an honor to receive President Sirleaf in France, being that she was the first woman President in Africa and also served as an example that goes far beyond Africa. It explained the reason that there were many women in office today, at high levels. As the President of a country which, for more than 20 years, suffered a terrible civil war, he said she had acted for reconciliation for her people to get together and to bring peace to the country. He paid tribute to the trust that the Liberian people gave Madam Sirleaf by re-electing her in 2011, observing that it was for her actions for peace, reconciliation, and for women’s rights that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
President Hollande added: “Today, it is France which is honoring you by awarding you the highest award of the French Republic because you are an outstanding person!” He then traced the life and career of the Liberian President, from her upbringing, through her election as President in 2005, and her efforts to get Liberia functioning again. He mentioned France’s contribution in the Paris Club’s decision to waive Liberia’s external indebtedness, with his country alone forgiving a debt of U$252 million.
He shared the Liberian leader’s commitment for more justice, more rights, and more jobs for young people. At the same time, he pointed out that President Sirleaf faced a number of challenges in Liberia, including poverty, illnesses, corruption and historical conflicts. “You are succeeding to do in Liberia what many countries are not managing to do,” he said, through her activities in ECOWAS. On Mali, he called upon Africa to act, and said that Europeans must provide support. It was the responsibility of the Africans to decide on whether to intervene in the matter, in the light of a Security Council resolution, but the countries of the region should do all that they could to enable Mali to regain its territorial integrity.
Addressing President Sirleaf, her counterpart said: “You are the President of a country which suffered so much from war, but you showed that hope was possible. You were able to undertake policies for the development of your country; you have been extremely brave in fighting corruption; and, most importantly, you’ve raised the hope of many women who, around the world, suffer because they are women. It is for all these reasons that France today is honoring you by awarding you the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur
Elsewhere in her speech, the President traced Franco-Liberian relations, predating Liberia’s independence; and observed that France recognized an independent Liberia five years after it declared, “and much more before our benefactor, the United States of America.” More recently, she said, France had demonstrated its commitment to Liberia by championing its cause for forgiveness from a crippling international debt overhang, providing crucial support, through the Paris Club, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to waive Liberia’s indebtedness. “As a result, today Liberia is debt free, and we owe that achievement, in large measure, to the role and strong support of France. The people of Liberia thank you, and sincerely want you to know that we remain in your debt,” the President stated.
As for the situation in her own country, President Sirleaf promised, with the encouragement and commitment of the Government of France under the leadership of President Hollande, to do all within her power to heal the wounds of the devastating civil war, work to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation, promote respect for fundamental and human rights, as well as the preservation of individual liberties and security, adding, “All of these values are embodied in our style of governance which is democratic, free, and transparent.”
President Sirleaf concurred with her French counterpart that “the onus of African development and growth rests with us, Africans. We must take primary responsibility for our development. The mitigation or the resolution of crises on our continent is solely an African obligation. We are heartened by your support to forge a cooperative enterprise with Africa in dealing with the continent’s intractable problems.” Africa would grow and develop, she said, when there prevails an environment of peace, security and stability.
In that connection, she referred to the crises in la Côte d’Ivoire and Mali and Guinea Bissau, and said that ECOWAS members remained relentless in ensuring that integration, cordiality and peace remain. She said she would continue working with her colleagues in ECOWAS to support democratic processes, to support accountability, transparency and participation of the people in the affairs of their nation.
Concerning France’s role in Africa, President Sirleaf said that Africa and France share a commonality of history, culture and brotherhood. She added: “Our future is bound in our resolve to work together, as friends and partners, in promoting mutuality of interests. I am convinced that France will show the way and encourage stronger integration amongst Francophone and Anglophone Africans… as Africans and France, not Anglophones and Francophones. We anticipate to work with you in this regard; we look forward to a harmonious and symbiotic relationship over the present North-South cooperation.”
Concluding President Sirleaf extended an invitation to President Hollande “to visit that little country that’s there, Anglophone but Francophone in all its ideals and its objectives, to consider us and to visit our country, thereby strengthening the relationship that has been formed between our two countries historically, and one which, today, carries it to a different level as a result of your friendship, your support, and the recognition you have given us through the honor that you’ve extended to me today.”
President Hollande thanked President Sirleaf and accepted her invitation.
The Liberian leader arrived in Paris early Wednesday morning and immediately commenced a round of activities which lasted well into the night. They included a meeting with African Ambassadors in France;
meetings with the heads of several French companies interested in doing business in Liberia, followed by a luncheon organized by MEDEF, France’s equivalent of a Chamber of Commerce, with representatives of 29 companies in attendance.
Following the Award ceremony, the President met with a group of Liberians living in France; discussed private sector investment in Liberia with France’s Minister of Foreign Trade, H.E. Mrs. Nicole Bricq; met with a businessman interested in opening a uniforms factory in Liberia for jobs creation; and also granted interviews to Jeune Afrique Magazine and France 24 television network, among many other activities. The President ended her day by dining at the restaurant at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
President Sirleaf and members of her delegation travel to Brussels early Thursday morning for meetings with the Belgium Senate, the European Union Parliament and the Committee of Ambassadors of the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific States. A breakfast meeting with the Heads of the Association of Liberians in Belgium & Friends of Liberia is also planned.