Controversial historian Dominique Venner carries out the "spectacular and symbolic" gesture he advocated to bring attention to his far-right views on Islam and immigration in Europe.
Notre Dame suicide generates political debate
MARSEILLE // When Dominique Venner, a far-right French historian with an impassioned hatred of Islam, shot himself dead at the altar of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, it was not the first spectacularly attention-seeking act of suicide the world had seen.
But the location and nature Venner's gesture, and its motivation, could hardly have been more dramatic.
After he produced a pistol and killed himself on Tuesday, about 1,500 people were ushered from one of the world's most famous churches, currently celebrating its 850th anniversary and visited by 13 million people annually.
A letter had been placed on the altar by Venner before he put a pistol to his head and fired in what he portrayed as a personal sacrifice in defence of traditional family values and against immigration.
In a final blog posting, published a few hours before his suicide, Venner, 78, described a need for eye-catching symbolism to confront what he saw as the ills of French society without hinting at what he was planning.
The media have focused on his attack on France's contentious new law permitting marriage between partners of the same sex, and their adoption of children. The highly vocal and diverse protest movement generated by the legislation will again take to the streets tomorrow.
But Venner said the demonstration should also target the "much more catastrophic threat" of France and Europe falling under Islamist power. He even referred to an Algerian blogger's comment that Islamists would be in power in Paris within 15 years and repeal the law.
"Not to make us feel good, I'm sure," Venner exclaimed, "but because it is contrary to Sharia."
In a key passage, which has been widely repeated, he wrote: "New gestures, spectacular and symbolic, will be necessary to stir up the lethargies, shake the anaesthetised consciences and reawaken the memory of our origins. We are entering a time when words must be authenticated by actions."
Venner urged protesters not to limit themselves to opposing the "marriage for all" policy but to challenge the threat of the "Afro-Maghreb immigration" leading, in his analysis, to the "total replacement" of the population of Europe.
"I believe it is necessary to sacrifice myself to break with overwhelming lethargy," he wrote in a letter read by a friend, Bernard Lugan, another controversial historian, on a conservative radio station, Radio Courtoisie, whose listeners were familiar with Venner's analysis of society. The contents of the note Venner left at the Notre Dame have not been disclosed.
Venner's suicide was not the first of its kind Paris had seen in recent days.
A 51-year-old man shot himself dead in front of children at a primary school close to the Eiffel Tower on Thursday of last week. Before firing, he had scattered newspaper clippings, including articles on the financial scandal that recently forced the resignation of Jerome Cahuzac as budget minister.
One view of people who choose to blast themselves to death in a place of worship, or before the eyes of small children, is that their action reveal deeply disturbed minds and a flimsy grasp of morality.
But Venner has achieved part of his aim by generating intense political discussion on the choice he made.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing Front National, express respect for Venner on Twitter. Adopting his language, she said his last act was "eminently political, an attempt to rewaken the people of France".
Her words dismayed many, including Harlem Désir, first secretary of France's ruling Socialist Party. "It is the act of a marginal extreme right," he said on Canal Plus television "But what shocks me is that Marine Le Pen … has seemed to justify this act. It's unique for a leading politician to believe suicide motivated by political reasons can be presented as exemplary. This is a personal tragedy but never something that should be an example."
The far right's willingness to exploit the incident was demonstrated by comments from Bruno Gollnisch, executive vice president of Ms Le Pen's party and a European parliamentarian. For him, the suicide was "a protest against the decadence of our society".
Venner was a veteran of the French military effort against Algerian rebel forces in the war of independence.
After conventional service as a junior army officer, he joined the OAS (Secret Army Organisation), a paramilitary group that used bombings and assassinations, including an attempt to murder the president, Gen Charles de Gaulle, in a vain campaign to keep Algeria French. Venner's support for the group led to 18 months in prison as a "political undesirable".
Subsequently, his career as a historian, and his copious output of books on military, hunting and social subjects, received mixed assessment. His History of the Red Army won an award from the prestigious Académie Française in 1981 but he was also accused of using "rhetorical strategies", in the phrase of one critic, to manipulate history. He also edited conservative history magazines.
The rector of Notre Dame, Monsigneur Patrick Jacquin, said that although people had killed themselves by leaping from the cathedral's towers, no one to his knowledge had committed suicide at the altar.