President Kumaratunga becomes the first Sri Lankan to be awarded France’s Highest National Order – Commander of the Legion of Honour

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the first Sri Lankan in almost 07 Decades and the first ever Sri Lankan woman to be awarded the Prestigious Medal of Commander of the Legion of Honour, the highest rank of the National Order of France. 

Jean-Marin Schuh, Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, presented the Medal of “Commandeur de la Légion D’Honneur” on behalf of Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, at a special function held at the Residence of the Ambassador.

President Kumaratunga’s Acceptance speech in English:

I wish to first thank the President and the Government of the Republic of France for according to me this high Honour of Commanduer de la Legion d’Honneur. My special gratitude goes to His Excellency the Ambassador, Jean-Marie Schuh, for so kindly facilitating it all and arranging this most enjoyable event. 

 I was taken completely by surprise when I received an intimation from Ambassador Schuh that the French Government had decided to accord me this honour. I had not asked and did not know that I would be considered for it. I never seek honours and have even declined some that were offered to me during my presidency – Honorary Doctorates from the Sorbonne University, as well from Peradeniya and Colombo Universities. I believed I should actually earn a Doctorate in the normal way, by writing a thesis and so on. 

In this instance, I reflected long and hard and decided that I will accept the honour, because I believe I have earned it, through decades of dedicated service to my country and people, as well as the role I have played globally, for the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance. 

I am specially delighted that this recognition of my life’s work comes from a country I consider my second home. 

The generosity of the Government of France in granting me a scholarship for the entirety of my university studies in France opened up new vistas for the unhindered development of my personality and my knowledge today, while giving me the opportunity for new experiences enriched with the eternal values of Liberty and Equality. It gave me possibility of learning of the beauty and necessity of diversity. 

The ethical values I learnt from parents – values of Honesty at all costs, unswerving commitment to the causes I believe in, loyalty and friendship – were offered the opportunity to blossom fully, in the freedom of Parisian student life.

I learnt to manage financially entirely on the stipend given to me as a scholarship student, as the Government Sri Lanka did not, permit exchange to be repatriated for undergraduate studies. At that time, I existed as many other students on subsidized meals from the university canteens, subsidized public transport, and at times foregoing meals to save money for theatre and ballet. I also learnt to do jobs – teaching English or menial jobs such as baby sitting and sweeping floors, washing dishes in my university hostel.

Thus I learnt what it is to be poor – something I may never have done in my country! I also learnt sharpen my inclination to militancy that I seemed to have harboured from a young age, when “May ‘68” exploded before us. I was on the barricades, in demonstrations, organising workers to protest, engaged in passionate dialogues and meetings till the wee hours of the mornings. For me, “May ‘68” was a marvelous explosion of free thought, of fraternity between youth belonging to every community – ethnic, religious, political.

I remember the day an Officer of the Sri Lanka Embassy in Paris called me to say that the French Police wished to see me. Our Diplomatic Officer kindly accompanied me to the Police. I was told firmly, that if I did not stop engaging in anti-Government activity, I’d be put on a plane and deported home! 

The seeds of free and liberal thought were sown in me by my father, and forged in to a strong force on the barricades and in the debates of “May ‘68” and thereafter. The ability to think logically in Cartesian style, peppered with dialectical materialistic thought in Marxian style, and to formulate a clear Vision and Action Plans for the tasks I undertake were learnt in my training at Sciences Po and during my PH.D. studies.

All this, is to say that I owe much to the life I had the privilege to lead in France. I am what I am as a person, and whatever positive achievements I can, in all humility, claim credit for, were deeply influenced not only by my parents and my education at School, but also very much by my time in France, where I gained deep intellectual inspiration as much as activism for progressive policies.

I must emphasise that I would not have achieved all this, without the immense support I have received from friends and colleagues in my diverse responsibilities and the trust and the affection of my people. 

I wish to dedicate the Honour of Commanduer de la Legion d’Honneur I received today, to all those like me, who dedicated their lives to realise our dream of building a better world. 

I also dedicate this Honour to all the precious young lives of Sri Lanka sacrificed on the altar of needless violence against fellow humans, in the name of whatever unattainable Utopia.

I thank all of you, my friends and colleagues, for your presence here today to share in the joy of this important moment in my life. 

My deep gratitude to Your Excellency Ambassador Schuh for all you have done to make this event a success.

I take this opportunity to wish Ambassador Schuh all the very best, as he is going to be leaving Sri Lanka in a few weeks, after completing his tenure here.

Thank you.