After the devastating fire, comes an appeal for the cathedral to be reconstructed, but, above all, an appeal for France to be rebuilt and for our faith in democracy to be restored.
In L’Étrange Défaite (The Strange Defeat), Marc Bloch said that “there are two categories of French people who will never understand the history of France: those who refuse to feel anything when recalling the consecration [of French kings] at Rheims, and those who feel nothing when reading about the Fête de la Fédération [the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille].” It is the same today, when a wave of emotion and solidarity is washing over the world following the fire that ravaged Notre Dame; those who wrangle over the cost of reconstruction, the amount of donations and how they will be taxed, are fated to remain forever alien to France and its destiny.
Notre Dame is far more than just the cathedral of Paris. Because of Christ’s crown of thorns acquired by Saint Louis, it is a place of pilgrimage for all Christians. It is the most magnificent example of Gothic art – a style created in Saint Denis and which spread throughout Europe. It is the home of all French people and the hypocenter of the whole country. It embodies the genius and the soul of France and is the repository of its memories. It constitutes one of the threads that runs through its literature, from Rabelais and Ronsard to Victor Hugo, Proust and Claudel. On 15th April, therefore, it was not just one of the most sublime buildings ever built by man that caught fire, but more than 800 years of history and beauty, stories and dreams.
That the fire occurred on the first day of Holy Week and only a few minutes before the President was due to make a speech intended to put an end to the “Gilet Jaune” [Yellow Vest] crisis was an incredible coincidence that has not failed to unleash ridiculous conspiracy theories. However, the truth is that the huge dismembered skeleton of Notre Dame is a reflection of the image of the Church, of France and of Europe. Thanks to the heroism of a handful of men who still put their lives at risk for ideals that are beyond them, the building still stands and, miraculously, many of the wonderful decorative elements have survived.
Times when peril is nearest at hand can also be times when the door to deliverance is opened. This devastating fire bears witness to the fragility of beauty, faith and democracy, but also to human courage. It comes with an appeal for the cathedral to be reconstructed, but, above all, an appeal for France to be rebuilt and for our faith in democracy to be restored.
We must listen to reason when it comes to reconstruction. The object is not to do it quickly, but to do it well, and once finance has been assured. Our heritage is ultimately a long-term affair and must not be subject to emotional tyranny or the heat of the moment. The statements made by the President (who claimed reconstruction was possible within five years), by the Prime Minister (who announced the holding of an international competition for the spire’s design) and by the Mayor of Paris (who insisted that the cathedral should be ready to receive visitors during the Olympic Games), are both inconsequential and inappropriate, coming as they do from leaders who have never shown the least interest in our heritage. Less than 9% of the Ministry of Culture’s budget is given over to it, and the churches of Paris are in a state of decay comparable to that of Notre Dame.
The same is true of France. Emmanuel Macron was on the point of committing the same error that was made in late 2018 by announcing a raft of category-specific measures financed by the public debt, garnished with concessions to populism, such as the abolition of ENA [the National School of Administration for the training of those destined to become high-ranking civil servants] and ENM [the National School of Magistrates]. These are just distractions to avoid reforming the State and modernizing a worn-out justice system, i.e. everything except a political answer, which is the only solution not only to the “Gilet Jaune” movement but, beyond that, to the major crisis our country is going through.
General de Gaulle said that “steak and French fries are good. The ‘quatre-chevaux’ [the Renault 4CV, a small, cheap family car produced from 1947 to 1961] is useful. But they do not constitute national ambition.” It is not phony increases in purchasing power that French people are waiting for, but rather national unity and ambition. This means mobilizing their energy and talents, instead of showing them disdain and producing disintegration by taking decisions based on individuals and communities and never taking account of the higher interests of the nation. This means making clear choices instead of claiming to reform and, in doing so, cultivating latent populism. It means that Emmanuel Macron must bring people together, federate and rally them, in order to become a man of the nation and not just the elected representative of the moment.
Georges Duby said that “there is no point in looking at history if it has nothing to offer us in the battles we are fighting today and that will be fought tomorrow.” The rebuilding of Notre Dame must be the opportunity for the French to pick up the threads of their history, which cannot be separated from the fight for freedom and the dignity of mankind.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 22nd April 2019)