Amb. Felix Rohatyn "Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur "
Residence of France, May 30, 2012
Mon Cher Felix, Ma Chère Elizabeth,
Distinguished guests, Dear friends,
Sophie and I are humbled and moved to welcome you all to our Residence this evening to honor our friend Felix Rohatyn.
Humbled, because there are occasions when the person bestowing the award is more honored than the one receiving it. That is the situation tonight.
Moved too, because Felix and Elizabeth Rohatyn are very dear friends of Sophie’s and mine, and have been part of our lives for more than ten years now. You both are our role models, and the friendship and admiration we have for the two of you are beyond words.
Four years ago, almost to the day, Felix and Elizabeth hosted a wonderful dinner in New York for our departure. The date Felix chose for the dinner was his own birthday—a day we will now always remember. Four years later, we have come together this evening to honor an extraordinary man, but also an exceptional couple. And to begin, on behalf of us all, I want to wish Felix a very happy birthday.
I would like to extend a warm welcome to Felix and Elizabeth’s family and friends who have joined us here tonight to show their support and admiration. With a very special word of welcome to the members of your family: Nicolas, Michael, Pierre and Anne Marie, Nina and Leo. And to Justice Breyer, another great friend of France, whose presence honors us all.
Dear friends, forgive me if I only touch on a few highlights of Felix’s life and accomplishments. Otherwise, we would be here until tomorrow morning.
Mon cher Felix, I believe it is fair to say that France is part of your soul. Born in Vienna, you fled with your family to France to escape the rise of Nazism. You were a brilliant student at Paris’s Lycée Janson de Sailly before having to leave France in 1940 for Casablanca, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro and finally, the United States.
France is therefore not only the country where you lived during the formative years of your childhood, but it is the last European country you lived in before fleeing for your life with your family. Yet despite all the tragedy of that period, one of the darkest in my country’s history, you would remain faithful to France throughout your entire life.
Your great American adventure began in 1942. You graduated from the prestigious Middlebury College in 1949 and at age 20, were offered an internship at the French-American investment bank Lazard Frères. It didn’t take long before you were recruited and singled out by the French banker André Meyer, who immediately saw your potential.
Your success was breathtaking: You quickly became Partner and then Managing Director of Lazard Frères’ American branch. And you soon earned your reputation as a visionary investment banker and a leading world authority on mergers and acquisitions.
At the same time, you set a glowing example with your dedication to public service, which has consistently been one of your trademarks. In 1975, Hugh (You) Carey, then Governor of the State of New York, called on you to broker talks aimed at rescuing New York City from bankruptcy. Appointed Chairman of the city’s Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), you continued negotiating with city creditors until 1993 while pursuing your deal-making at Lazard. You accomplished this “Mission Impossible” brilliantly and saved New York from financial meltdown.
A few years later, in 1997, President Clinton appointed you Ambassador to Paris. I’m not exaggerating when I say that you were universally successful: You and Elizabeth were everywhere, on every front; all of France adored you –and still does; you were real rock stars! I know something about that, because I was Press Attaché in Washington at the time, which meant that I was responsible for preparing press reviews on French-American topics.
And these reviews inevitably started with a list of everything you had been doing, to the extent that I ended up having to create a special file titled: “Ambassador Rohatyn’s activities” –and it was the thickest one !
As Ambassador to France, you not only proved to be a quintessential diplomat; you exhibited a deep knowledge and understanding of French society and culture; and you introduced major innovations in a number of areas.
To take just a few examples, you opened a series of small diplomatic missions, called “American Presence Posts,” in Rennes, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Lille, communicating America’s message throughout France at a lower cost than via traditional Consulates. You strongly promoted business ties between our two countries, notably by creating the French-American Business Council.
In the cultural arena, Elizabeth was your “secret weapon.” To give you just one remarkable illustration, Elizabeth founded FRAME (French Regional & American Museum Exchange), the first bilateral coalition of regional art museums dedicated to promoting French-American cooperation. FRAME has been a great success story ever since with your continued support.
On a slightly different note, mon cher Felix, your sense of the connection between the duty to remember and your faith in the construction of Europe grew out of your own personal history. Thus in 1999, on the 55th anniversary of the Normandy landings, you delivered a memorable speech to D-Day veterans at Omaha Beach. You told them—and I quote—that “a democratic, prosperous Europe is the finest monument” to the veterans’ heroic actions.
It was these words I had in mind a few days ago when I went to West Point to bestow the Legion of Honor upon 38 American World War II veterans.
Chers Felix et Elizabeth, your remarkable success in Paris will go down in history along with that of your illustrious predecessor, Benjamin Franklin.
Following in the footsteps of America’s first Ambassador to France, who set the standard, you not only raised the friendship between our two countries to an unparalleled new level, but also translated it into concrete cooperation and enduring partnerships. Like Benjamin Franklin, both of you are great masters of persuasion, and you used your talent and leadership to strengthen the unique bond between our two nations.
For your commitment to French-American relations is for you, as for Franklin, an affair of the heart as much as of the mind. It’s one of the commitments of your life. After you left Paris in 2000, the relationship between our two countries passed through some rough waters, relating in particular to the Iraqi crisis. And there too you were both instrumental in rebuilding the bridge of understanding between our two nations during those difficult times, and you put your soul into making it happen.
On a more personal note, Sophie and I will never forget your incredibly warm welcome when we arrived in New York in 2004 and your unwavering support since then. And if we are here today, representing France in America, it is to a large extent thanks to you and because you gave us the keys to understanding your great country.
Mon cher Felix, your intimate knowledge of France manifests in many different ways. You were and are a board member of some of the largest French business consortiums, including LVMH and Publicis. You and Elizabeth are also very involved in numerous French-American associations, such as the American Friends of Versailles and the French-American Foundation.
You have received countless awards for your commitment to fostering French-American relations, including, in fact, the French-American Foundation’s “Benjamin Franklin Award,” which Sophie bestowed upon you just under two years ago.
Your many books and op-eds, a number of which have been devoted to transatlantic relations, make you one of the most original and influential economic thinkers of our time. You apply your unparalleled experience and expertise to the great challenges of today: ensuring the integrity of financial markets, developing an agenda for corporate reform, protecting investors, creating a plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure, and I could go on and on.
You argue that now more than ever, ethics and fairness are moral imperatives, but also the prerequisites for good business and healthy societies. And you are convinced that Europe and America share a special responsibility, from that standpoint. As a fervent admirer of Jean Monnet, you have adopted his motto—and I quote: “Nous ne coalisons pas des Etats, nous unissons des hommes” - “We are not forming coalitions of states, we are uniting men.” This, I believe, is one of your core convictions as well as one of the secrets of your leadership.
Dear friends, the Legion of Honor was created in 1802 to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France, based on a personal decision by the President of the French Republic. It is France’s highest distinction and one of the most coveted in the world. Felix was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1983 and promoted to Officier four years later.
Today on behalf of France I will promote him to the rank of Grand Officier, which is truly exceptional. It is the first time in my life that I have awarded this very prestigious decoration, and it is an enormous pleasure and privilege to bestow it upon Felix Rohatyn.
Felix Rohatyn, au nom du Président de la République, et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous élevons à la dignité de Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur./.