“Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated!” intoned General de Gaulle on 25 August 1944 from the Hotel de Ville on his first appearance before the French people following the capital’s liberation. The following day he attended the Te Deum at Notre Dame Cathedral, that other high symbol and site of memory and meaning for Parisians and the French.
The tragedy of the Notre Dame fire puts politics and politicians in perspective. In the space of a few hours, the 850-year old Cathedral that had witnessed five centuries of the kings and queens of France, the French Revolution (as a wine warehouse), Napoleon’s consecration as Emperor, the restoration of the monarchy, the 1848 revolution, the restoration of the Empire, the Paris Commune, five republics – and the funerals of presidents Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Francois Mitterrand – looked like it would be no more.
The fire took hold barely an hour before president Macron was to make a solemn broadcast to the nation presenting his much-heralded reform programme to defuse the near six-month-old yellow vest movement and to heal a deeply fractured society.
The broadcast was cancelled in what is increasingly looking like an annus horribilis for the French president. Macron’s broadcast will be rescheduled, but France is profoundly wounded by this tear in her history, her identity, her soul. Attention has already turned to rebuilding. One wonders how this might play out for the embattled Macron who has already pledged ‘We will rebuild her together’. Is it an opportunity to show his true talent and successfully bind the wound in France’s very essence, or to be ignored by a disabused and despondent society?
Already glimmers of troubles to come are in evidence. How to finance the rebuilding, public subscription or the State? For in France since the 1905 Separation of Church and State, cathedrals are the property of the State (and parish churches local authorities). The pledging of donations by the incredibly rich of France – Antoine Pinault, £86m (100m euros); Bernard Arnault, £170m (200m euros) – could excite rather than quell the already strident calls for tax justice in France.
Should the reconstruction be exactly in the image of the original gothic building, or should it include the neo-gothic spire added by Viollet-le-Duc in 1860, which collapsed yesterday in the fire? Should it be the 1830s Notre Dame of Victor Hugo or the one today’s Parisians have always treasured? Or should it have even more modern additions? The heated political discussion provoked by Francois Mitterrand’s decision to construct the Louvre Pyramid does not bode well for political serenity.
Suggestions that the rebuilding of Notre Dame, a UNESCO World Heritage site visited by 14 million tourists a year, should be a European project, rather than purely French is potentially incendiary given the proximity of the May European elections, Macron’s call for a European renaissance and growing French Euroscepticism.
Then there are the swirling conspiracy theories on social media on the fire’s origin. Le Monde has attempted to debunk these but the official police and judicial investigations may never extinguish them given the destruction of serious material proof in the fire.
How the inexperienced president Macron copes with these additional burdens requires a political acumen and a degree of sensitivity that he has not always demonstrated. In this we should perhaps heed Victor Hugo’s warning from The Hunchback of Notre Dame: ‘His judgement demonstrates that one can be a genius and understand nothing of an art that is not one’s own’.