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France bestows Ordre des Palmes académiques on two U of T faculty members

From left: Consul General of France, Mark Trouyet, associate professors Ron Levi and Paul Cohen and Brigitte Proucelle, cultural, education and sciences adviser at the French Consulate (all photos by Dhoui Chang)

Adding to their already long list of accomplishments, the University of Toronto’s Ron Levi and Paul Cohen can now call themselves knights of the French Republic.

At a ceremony on Friday at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, the two associate professors were named Chevalier (knight) dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques – an honour granted to those who have made major contributions to French education and culture.

The title was first created by Napoleon I in 1808, becoming a decoration in 1866 under Napoleon III. It is France’s oldest non-military decoration, France’s Consul General Marc Trouyet told ceremony attendees.  

“It is indeed a privilege to honour two such distinguished professors for their ability to liaise to and with France, its history and society,” he said.

Levi is an associate professor of global affairs and sociology, the director of global strategy at the Munk School and the George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also cross-appointed with the Faculty of Law and the department of political science.

Cohen is an associate professor of history who helped to launch the Centre for the Study of France and the Francophone World in the Munk School, where he was director until 2017.

“On behalf of the entire university, I would like to congratulate Ron Levi and Paul Cohen on receiving this extremely prestigious recognition,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “Through their excellence in research, teaching and public engagement, they embody many of our goals and values as a world-leading institution, helping forge strong international partnerships and serving as a model of global citizenship.”

Paul Cohen, Janice Stein and Ron Levi at Friday's ceremony at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy

“When you look at these two colleagues, they bring an intellectual tradition to the work that they do and to the partnerships they have developed with France and with our partnering universities in France,” said Janice Stein, political science professor and Munk School’s founding director, who added that their accomplishments represent the essence of the school’s interdisciplinary work, crossing “physical and intellectual borders.”

French language, history and culture were an important part of both Levi and Cohen’s lives from a young age.

Levi grew up in Quebec in an Egyptian-Jewish household where French was his mother tongue, but he and his family also spoke Hebrew, English and Arabic.

“French as a language was always part of the story, but France as a location was also part of the story,” he told U of T News. “My mother probably knows the arrondissements of Paris better than she knows even the city she lives in – Montreal.”

In both his personal and professional life, Levi embodies what he calls “global France.”

“Global France is really to start imagining France beyond its territory as ideas about France and ideals of France that circulate and that inform how people imagine France but also the rest of life and the rest of the world,” he said.

Levi said this perspective can be used to apply French intellectual traditions, like those of famed sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, to understanding the world outside of France – from social relations to international law.

Global France is also realized by connecting educational institutions in France with schools and scholars around the world, he said.

Levi helped to create a dual master’s degree program between the Munk School and France’s Sciences Po (The Paris Institute of Political Studies).

“The strategy there is to say that partnership can recruit not only Canadian and French students, but also students from other countries who can see the links between Canada and France and can also knit their own story of global France in the process,” he said.

Paul Cohen receives his Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques honour

While Cohen spent much of his childhood in New York, he told U of T News that he grew up travelling between France and the U.S.

Cohen’s family was “saturated by history,” he said – particularly his mother’s side of the family – who is French.

“My grandfather and great grandfather were both passionate about history,” he said.

His fascination with history stayed with him through his studies, into his first teaching role at Université Paris-8, and at U of T, where he has been since 2005.

France still plays an important role in Cohen's life. “It’s a place where I still have deep connections – both familial and friends and professional connections – and it's a place I feel engaged with as a citizen.”

In 2007, Cohen helped to launch the Centre for the Study of France and the Francophone World, which was created as part of an initiative launched by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since its inception, “it has ensured that U of T is a great, exciting place where interdisciplinary conversations take place on all matters French and francophone,” he said.

“I'm very proud and very happy. I worked very hard – and a lot of people worked very hard within U of T in the French, history and other departments.”

Cohen said he is “honoured and humbled” to receive the l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, as part of “a long and distinguished list of people.”

Both Cohen and Levi said they were honoured to receive the distinction together.

“Being able to receive this honour at the same time as an incredible colleague at the Munk School, Paul Cohen, is not only to put me in amazing company but it is also to provide evidence – a demonstration effect of the strong relationship between the University of Toronto, the Munk School and France,” Levi said.

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