Francine LeFrak received the insignia of the Legion of Honor on November 26 at a ceremony held at the French Consulate. Ambassador François Delattre who presided at the ceremony, emphasized not only Ms. LeFrak’s distinguished work as an advocate for humanitarian causes but also her generosity toward French and American cultural endeavors. Over 100 guests were present including family members, friends, international dignitaries, activists, and many other like-minded people Mrs. LeFrak has partnered with on her decades-long cultural and philanthropic journey. (Coincidentally, Francine LeFrak and other top-level philanthropists are appearing now on the cover of the Forbes special philanthropy issue.)
Mayor Fulop of Jersey City,
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and dear Veronica,
Commissioner Safir and Mrs. Safir,
Mrs. Gloria Steinem,
Cher Guy Wildenstein, President of the American Society of the French Legion of Honor,
Dear Francine LeFrak, Dear Rick Friedberg,
Dear friends, Chers amis,
It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to welcome you all tonight to the French Consulate on this very special occasion as we are gathered here this evening to honor our friend Francine LeFrak, a most-talented and successful professional, a great friend of France and an exceptional individual. I would like to extend a warm welcome to Francine’s family and friends who have joined us tonight to show their support and admiration, with a special word of appreciation to her husband Rick Friedberg, who is also celebrated in his field and to whom I also want to pay tribute. I am glad to see other friends and familiar faces, among them Kip Forbes, Corice Arman, Catherine Verret-Vimont, Jacques Leviant – and I should mention by name many of you. A warm word of thanks also to our friends at the French Consulate and the Embassy Cultural Services for their welcome and support. Before proceeding with the ceremony, I would like to say a few words about the award I will bestow upon Francine LeFrak. The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France. It is France’s highest distinction and one of the most coveted in the world.
Where to begin with someone who has breathed energy, empathy and thoughtfulness into such a wide array of sectors on several continents?
You are an award-winning theater and film producer, a passionate philanthropist, a social entrepreneur and women’s rights activist.
Tonight you are being honored for each part of this multifaceted and exceptional career. And the way you combine your skills, interests and passions is truly unique. Your artistic career is coupled with social action, your business interests with human concern.
You were born to one of New York’s most successful real estate families. Your father was Samuel J. LeFrak, a true visionary who bought a swampy plot of land in Queens and in 1959 transformed it into LeFrak City, a well-known complex providing the middle class with affordable housing and a sense of safety and opportunity.
You recently wrote an article entitled “How I Became My Father” which shows your admiration for him. Every day you have remained faithful to your father’s social ethic, helping those in need, inspiring and empowering many in all walks of life.
And this drive has been evident throughout your successful career. Critical acclaim first came your way as a producer of plays and musicals, such as Crimes of the Heart, Nine, My One and Only, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which won a Laurence Olivier SWET award. Your productions have received multiple Tony, Emmy and Peabody Awards.
From there, you expanded to movies, and I cannot resist noting Miss Rose White, which was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards and won 4.
You focus on relevant and contemporary subjects, with the goal of not only moving but also educating audiences. Your artistic work has always had an educational component, and at least two of your productions have been used as teaching tools. Prison Stories studies the impact of incarceration on families, and Blood Brothers explores the effects of AIDS with a message of hope and tolerance.
As you once said, and I quote, “My aim is to shed light and put a human face on important social issues”. And I would add: social issues of global significance.
Your passion for the arts has led you on French adventures over the years. In fact, the connection began with your great-grandfather, Maurice LeFrak, who started the family’s real-estate business in the 19th century in France.
His son Harry later immigrated to the U.S., but you have always honored your French heritage with your strong commitment to the arts and education. For more than twenty years, you have successfully supported UniFrance and its mission of promoting French cinema in the United States.
As a long-time board member of the American Friends of Versailles, you raised funds for the restoration of Les Trois Fontaines Bosquet and the Pavillon Frais. And in 2009, you honored the famous architect I.M. Pei on the 20th anniversary of the unveiling of the Louvre Pyramid, together with Forbes Magazine and the American Friends of the Louvre. Dear Francine, with Versailles and the Louvre, you have helped promote the two most famous French historical monuments! You are a wonderful ambassador of French culture and French heritage.
And here at home in New York City, you demonstrate your passion for French 19th-century and contemporary art as a member of the Contemporary Arts Council of the Museum of Modern Art. You are a true arts activist for New York City and abroad. And I could give many other examples.
As a true citizen of the world, you are a tireless advocate for women’s rights in the developing world in particular. Through your business, you are able to link humanitarian causes and the fashion world.
You provide insight for consumers on the production process from start to finish and educate people so that artisans and workers benefit every step of the way. I believe your father would be proud of this social ethic, as are your family and friends here tonight.
Several years ago, in this spirit of improving the world, you courageously left a Hollywood career to start a fair-trade business in Rwanda. In 2008 you founded Same Sky, a socially conscious jewelry line that provides employment to HIV-positive women who survived the Genocide in Rwanda. This business enables the women involved to earn a sustainable income through which they provide food, education and healthcare to their families.
And you are currently in the process of exporting this successful fair-trade business model to the United States.
You once said: “the concept of an empowered woman changed my life.” Well, you most certainly have changed these women’s lives, as you give them, as you say, “a hand up and not a handout,” “a trade instead of an aid.” In short, you don’t only provide help; rather you give them a sense of pride and dignity. This is the essence of Benjamin Franklin’s message, the father of modern philanthropy, who also was the first and very successful American Ambassador to Paris.
Your commitments to eradicate poverty and promote a fair-trade business have led you to serve as a Senior Advisor for Grameen America, a microfinance organization, with your Nobel Peace Prize-winning friend, Professor Muhammad Yunus.
You chair the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women’s Leadership Board, a body of influential leaders that advances issues related to women throughout the world. And through your foundation, the LeFrak Foundation, you fight to promote the full recognition of women throughout the globe.
Tonight we honor your commitment to universal values that France holds dear. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” as our national motto proclaims; you link these three beloved words together.
On behalf of the President of France, and in recognition of your exemplary commitment to the values that our two countries share and to French-American friendship, it is a great privilege for me to bestow upon you the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Francine Le Frak, au nom du Président de la République, nous vous remettons les insignes de Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur./.