Andrew Young awarded the French Legion of Honor

For New Orleans native, it was a closing of a circle
Ambassador Andrew Young gives remarks just after receiving the French Legion of Honor medal in Atlanta on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. (Ben Gray/Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Ambassador Andrew Young gives remarks just after receiving the French Legion of Honor medal in Atlanta on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. (Ben Gray/Ben@BenGray.com)

Now you can call him Officier Young.

Born in the French-bathed New Orleans and having visited the European country for the first time at age 21, Ambassador Andrew Young was awarded the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, Thursday night at a ceremony at the home of Anne-Laure Desjonquères, the consul general of France in Atlanta.

French Ambassador to the United States, Laurent Bili, pinned the red decoration on the lapel of Young.

“For the French, this is very important,” said Bili. “It is about human values and what you contributed to make the world better.”

Ambassador Andrew Young talks with French Ambassador to the U.S. Laurent Bili before receiving the French Legion of Honor medal in Atlanta on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Since it was created in 1804 by Napoléon Bonaparte, the “Légion d’Honneur” has been bestowed upon French citizens, as well as foreign nationals, who have served France or the ideals it upholds.

Bili said Young fits all of that and credited him for his work in ending racial segregation in America and “paving the way for a fairer America.” Bili also noted Young’s advocacy for human rights and efforts to settle a war in what is now Zimbabwe, ending white minority rule there.

“Ambassador Young, you are a living legend,” Bili told Young in presenting the medal. “Your name is forever inscribed into the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. For decades now, you have worked to foster peace and justice throughout the world.”

Young was first recognized by France in 1984 by François Mitterrand, who awarded him the rank of “Chevalier” during an official visit to Atlanta.

As part of a rigorous process, current President Emmanuel Macron promoted him to the rank of “Officier” or “Officer,” for his “outstanding contributions to human rights and equality.”

The award is divided into five degrees: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross).

“I have to confess that this was my first time meeting him, as I have just read about his achievements,” said Ambassador Bili, who is a Chavalier, about his fellow ambassador. “I’ve just been amazed by his character and charisma. So being with him has been very illuminating.”

For the 91-year-old Young, the honor served literally as another significant medal to place upon his already heavy lapel. Throughout his life, which has seen him go from civil rights leader to congressman to a United Nations Ambassador to the mayor of Atlanta, dozens of countries have honored him.

In 1981, President Jimmy Carter, whom he served under as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, awarded Young the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.

Ambassador Andrew Young shakes hands with French Ambassador to the US Laurent Bili just after receiving the French Legion of Honor medal in Atlanta on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Flanked by his wife, brother, son and grandson, Young told the assembled French delegation about growing up in New Orleans. Young’s grandmother, Louisa Czarnowski Fuller, was Creole and spoke the language.

“You fall in love with France, because that is all you are taught,” Young said. “Growing up in New Orleans, you know French history. You know the relationship between the French involvement in American independence. I can’t remember a time when I was ever against the French.”

Young would visit France in 1953 as part of a church group. He worked for several weeks building a refugee center in Austria but remembers hiking and biking across France when time permitted.

“I was in the best shape of my life. They had never seen anybody like me,” he said, showing off a shirtless photo of a 21-year-old Young digging a foundation.

About 10,000 Americans have been honored, including James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Jesse Jackson.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first person whom Young ever voted for in a presidential election, was also honored.

“I never think of it,” Young said. “Because I enjoy the company of ordinary folk that I enjoy being around here in Atlanta.”


French Legion of Honor Degrees:

  • Chevalier (Knight): minimum 20 years of public service or 25 years of professional activity with “eminent merits”
  • Officier (Officer): minimum 8 years in the rank of Chevalier
  • Commandeur (Commander): minimum 5 years in the rank of Officier
  • Grand officier (Grand Officer): minimum 3 years in the rank of Commandeur
  • Grand-croix (Grand Cross): minimum 3 years in the rank of Grand-officier