24 August 2024
At the opening today of the rebuilt Notre Dame Cathedral, after the disastrous fire in April 2019, President Macron defended his decision to retask it with a new mission as a “house for all faiths, and also for those who have no faith.”
“Notre Dame is a symbol of France, it has been reconstructed as a symbol of France, and so it is perfectly normal that its magnificence be accessible to everyone,” the president said. The new Notre Dame was even better than the old one, he said.
The new Notre Dame is controversial and has divided critics. They have accused it of being little more than a tourist attraction. Wasn’t it ever thus? While it will continue to be free to admire the building from the outside, entry within shall now attract a hefty fee.
The event spaces are also controversial. The Catholic hierarchy objected strongly but it was felt that substantial revenues could be gained. It is promised that events will be educational, cultural and spiritual, not commercial. But there are those who warn of fine lines and possible conflicts.
Also provoking argument: The renaissance Notre Dame is even accused by some of not actually existing at all, because of the intense use of virtual reality and hologram technology. The five-year timetable for reconstruction could not have been met had there been actual construction. The reconfigurable spire which includes a minaret mode for Ramadan, is visible from space.
There was not the timber nor the craftsmen to rebuild the roof, so instead there is a virtual roof, made of biodegradable hemp, which is even better, as it also serves as a screen for laser projectors, recreating the former ceiling in 4000K high definition.
The building is now open on the inside, with pop-up altars and environment-friendly LEDs replacing votive candles. Because the hefty computer centre (actually in Evry, about 40 km away) is capable of dynamically reconfiguring spaces and customising user experience, it is possible for a Muslim visitor to conjure himself in a Mosque, while a Jew may summon a mikvah. It is quite Aladdin like, and no coincidence that Disney was a key provider of technology.
Catholics, who to be honest are few in number in France, have protested the appropriation of their space by secular and even competing faith activity. “You will pardon me if I fail to understand the LVMH multifaith chapel,” sniffs one angry priest, with whom I share a pastis or two at a nearby café.
But there has been strong reaction to criticism of the Chapel of Asylum, with those raising questions accused by Bernard Henri-Levy of being racists.
There is a certain magnificence to the beautiful cleaned stone walls, and a poignancy to the interior emptiness, since it is entirely void, all interiors otherwise ‘created’ electronically.
The fire at Notre Dame cathedral could have been the end of Macron, capping a calamitous period in his presidency with the images of the inferno in the heart of Paris. Instead, it is where he found his voice.
Marion Maréchal Le Pen had proved a formidable opponent, but Macron’s victory with 54 per cent of the second-round vote on the 23rd April 2022 was more than convincing. He was older, grey hair having taken over, the youthful dimples morphing into creases. The arrogance had gone. When he presided at the Olympics opening ceremony on 26 July 2024, Brigitte at his side, still fragrant aged 71, he was the senior statesman of Europe.
Notre Dame redoux is not merely a triumph for France, but a triumph for Macron. Ceux sont les journées des miracles et des merveilles.
Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron