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Piketty rejects Legion of Honor, vindicates Napoleon

By Tim Fernholz

The economist who revived the debate over wealth inequality last year refused his country’s highest honor today.

Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century laid out a controversial argument about capitalism’s trend towards economic inequality that infused political debates in 2014, declined consideration for the French Legion of Honor.

“I just found out that I had been proposed for the Legion of Honor,” the Paris School of Economics professor told the AFP (rough translation thanks to Google). “I reject this appointment and I do not think it is the role of government to decide who is honorable. It would be better that it be devoted to recovery growth in France and in Europe. “

The Legion of Honor is akin to the British knighthood. It is awarded by the Grand Master of the Legion, always the French president, on the advice of the government. Piketty, however, has been a critic of France’s president Francois Hollande and his policies.

Napoleon Bonaparte first bestowed the award in 1802, using it to replace the traditional French orders of chivalry with a recognition of merit divorced from aristocracy.

“You call these baubles, well, it is with baubles that men are led,” Napoleon reportedly said of the awards. “Do you think that you would be able to make men fight by reasoning? Never. That is good only for the scholar in his study.”

In the case of a scholar such as Piketty, it would seem that Napoleon might have been on the right track.