The Ministerial Order of Arts and Letters was created on 2 May 1957 (Decree No. 57-549 of 2 May 1957 establishing the Order of Arts and Letters). He reports to the Minister in charge of Culture, the latter deciding sovereign appointments after having read the opinions issued by the Council of the Order of Arts and Letters.
After the two national orders (the Order of the Legion of Honour and the National Order of Merit), it is one of the four ministerial orders - with the Order of Academic Palms (founded 1808), the Order of Agricultural Merit (founded 1883) and the Order of Maritime Merit (founded 1930) - was maintained after the creation in 1963 by General de Gaulle of the Ordre National du Mérite, which brought together most of the ministerial orders.
The conditions of award, defined by Order in Council, state that “This order is intended to reward those who have distinguished themselves by their creations in the artistic or literary field or by the contribution they have made to the influence of the Arts and Letters in France and in the world.”
The order consists of three ranks (Knight, Officer and Commander). To be appointed to the rank of knight, one must be at least thirty years old and enjoy his civil rights.
There are three promotions per year:
For French: 2 promotions (January and July)
Contingent of 50 commanders, 140 officers, 450 knights.
For Foreigners: 1 promotion, in spring
Compulsory referral to the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.
A total of 960 Arts and Letters Crosses are awarded each year (by comparison, the annual quota for Agricultural Merit is in the order of 4,000 and the annual quota for Academic Palms is 12,000).
The Council of the Order of Arts and Letters
This Council meets 3 times a year; it has 15 members: half of the directors of central administration, half of the personalities chosen by the Minister (appointed for three years) and a representative of the Council of the Order of the Legion of Honour.
The Council of the Order considers all the applications, collected and examined in advance by the Honours Section (verification of the applicant’s civil status, criminal record and cultural merits). The Council of the Order then draws up the list of candidates it considers worthy of being distinguished. This list is submitted to the minister who has sole authority to appoint. Each promotion is the subject of a ministerial decree which is then published, when it concerns persons of French nationality, in the Official Bulletin of Decorations, Medals and Awards.
The Order of Saint Michael (1469 - 1830) can be considered the precursor of the Order of Arts and Letters. Originally intended for the aristocracy, it was intended in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become an order of civil merit where many artists, architects, collectors or people of letters would be distinguished.
The academic palms, founded under the Empire, took part in the relay, representing, at first, the republican reward of the merits acquired in the field of arts as in that of teaching.
The prestige of French culture and the growing autonomy of the Fine Arts Directorate, which became the State Secretariat for Arts and Letters within the Ministry of National Education, contributed to the creation, in 1957, of a specific decoration, adapted to the world of arts and literature. The founding in 1959 of a Ministry of Cultural Affairs confirmed the importance of this distinction, which was “respected and envied by artists, writers and creators” according to the formula of André Malraux, Minister of State for Cultural Affairs, from 1959 to 1969.