Notre-Dame has managed to do what Emmanuel Macron couldn't and unite France
It could take at least 40 years to restore the cathedral to its former glory
By the strangest of coincidences, the fire that devastated one of France’s most emblematic monuments, Notre-Dame cathedral, erupted just as president Emmanuel Macron was about to unveil his master plan for ending months of social unrest.
The widely awaited televised broadcast was abruptly postponed less than half an hour before the president was due to speak.
Instead, some hours later, he found himself at the scene of the fire making a quite different sort of declaration, though with the broadly similar aim of bringing together a troubled nation.
As hundreds of firefighters continued to battle the flames nearby, he expressed gratitude that the worst had been avoided.
He acclaimed the 12th century Notre-Dame, visited annually by about 13 million people, as “our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where France has lived all its great moments”. And he solemnly committed himself and the nation to its reconstruction.
Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the sense of grief felt by French people of all faiths and beliefs. Notre-Dame is Paris, as powerful a symbol of the City of Light as the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe. There is almost tangible relief that the main structure of the cathedral, especially its twin towers and stained glass windows, have been spared.
Yet the shocking spectacle of the 90-metre spire, devoured by flames before twisting and crumbling to the ground of the Ile de la Cite, the river island on which the cathedral stands, will remain long in the minds of millions.
There were tears among people, Parisians and tourists alike, watching what they could from behind crowd control barriers, and in the eyes of television viewers as the blaze eerily transformed the capital’s dramatic skyline and swept scheduled programmes from their screens.
It made for a wretched scene, the images captured on countless cameras and shared with increasing horror and despair on social media platforms. Unlike the loss of other cultural monuments in recent years, the destruction appeared to have accidental origins, linked to the renovation of the cathedral and not to man-made acts of terror. Mercifully, no one died and only one person, a fireman, was seriously hurt.
Notre-Dame’s decimation brings memories of other appalling incidents of cultural destruction in modern history to mind: the deliberate bombing of Al Nuri mosque in Mosul and much of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra by ISIS, or the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban fighters.
In Paris, hours after firefighters finally mastered the blaze, and with the cathedral still smouldering, there was lingering disbelief at the rapid and enormous effects of an apparent workday mishap, even if human carelessness turns out to be involved. There were echoes of 1992, when a spotlight shining on curtains caused a huge blaze at the Windsor Castle residence of Queen Elizabeth II.
One leading French historian, Stephane Bern, speculated that it could take 40 years or more to restore the cathedral fully.
Mr Bern was in tears as the flames rose skyward, jets of water trained on the fire seeming pathetic beneath the magnitude of the task. He spoke movingly of a place of worship central to French history that had withstood the ravages of insurrection and warfare.
For Mr Macron, it was an easy decision to postpone his planned speech intended to placate the gilets jaunes movement, France’s yellow vest protesters who have been demonstrating, often violently, for nearly six months over rising prices and diminished spending power
Protestant Huguenots attacked the cathedral in the 16th century, as did mobs in the French revolution nearly 250 years later.
Notre-Dame survived two world wars almost unscathed. But had Adolf Hitler’s dying Nazi regime survived just a few more days, and German forces obeyed his order to let Paris burn, Notre-Dame might have been reduced to ruins 75 years ago.
Despite the spectacular nature of the fire, there have been some small blessings. Many treasures have been saved, including 16 renowned copper statues of the apostles and evangelists removed a week ago because of the building work, and the Crown of Thorns. Other priceless works, however, are certain to have been lost.
Amid the donors who promised to help rebuild Notre-Dame were Bernard Arnault, the billionaire behind the LVMH Group which owns Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, who pledged €200 million (Dh830m) while businessman Francois-Henri Pinault has offered €100m (Dh415m) towards the huge restoration initiative, launched overnight by the president while flames still licked at the spire.
Paris City Hall and the regional administration say they will add at least €60m (Dh249m) more.
One of France’s most senior Catholic clerics, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, archbishop of the northeastern city of Reims, put the loss most poignantly when he said: “A piece of our flesh has burned”.
Yet the archbishop, ordained at Notre-Dame both as a priest and a bishop, was also confident the glories of the cathedral would rise again from their ashes. “The Christmas mass will not be celebrated in the cathedral this year,” he wrote in the Catholic daily newspaper La Croix. “But I am sure that this catastrophe will inspire a new impetus.”
As for Mr Macron, it was an easy decision to postpone his planned speech intended to placate the gilets jaunes movement, France’s yellow vest protesters who have been demonstrating, often violently, for nearly six months over rising prices and diminished spending power.
But while all immediate thoughts are with the resurrection of Notre-Dame, France will wonder whether the president, too, can find new impetus to heal damage caused by austerity and build national unity.
Colin Randall is a freelance journalist in France
Updated: April 16, 2019 05:38 PM