On the Fire at Notre Dame

On the Fire at Notre Dame
AP Photo/Vanessa Pena
On the Fire at Notre Dame
AP Photo/Vanessa Pena
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Only minutes after the fire broke out at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, stations worldwide were already broadcasting live from the site on the Ile de la Cite.

Flames soared from the roof while, a l'etranger, American and other foreign commentators announced that this tragic event would gut not only the church, but strike a blow at the heart of France, destroying an irreplaceable artifact of Western civilization.

Seemingly authoritative analyses were provided of how the French people were taking it. The herd mentality took over the media. The conundrum was how to find something unique to say about a country one had perhaps visited several times -- maybe even enough to speak the language passably well.   

French commentators, realizing the world’s eyes were upon them, turned up the intensity. The wonderfully savvy international activist Bernard Henri-Levy, interviewed by phone on one U.S. channel, gave the expected speech.

That the destruction at Notre Dame is a tragedy goes without saying. Certain priceless works are gone -- among them, for example, the historically important stained glass in the rose windows. But according to news reports, the damage is circumscribed. The limestone structure held up well, and nearly a billion euros have been pledged by donors for the reconstruction of the magnificent monument. Unless the project is devoured by politics, rebuilding the cathedral should and will become a national undertaking.

It won't be the same, but Notre Dame will be repaired, once again magnificent and whole, once again a center of international tourism and of religious observance, if not quite as recognizable a symbol of France as the Eiffel Tower.

But it is not true that Notre Dame expressed every French person's most intimate feeling about France. To speak in general terms, the French decades ago became a majority-secular people. Church attendance and genuine Christian belief are a fraction of what they were. Priests have become an uncommon commodity. (Vocations are few. Some priests today are recruited in African countries, and some of those -- think of it -- are sent to the French countryside, where they travel among smaller towns and villages to minister).

For a less abstract measure, one could ask what the gilets jaunes, the angry yellow vested protesters who have occupied roundabouts and boulevards throughout the country, feel about the fire at Notre Dame. 
Many gilets jaunes, without a doubt, are among the faithful -- still Catholics in the hard sense of the term. These believers may comprehend the fire at Notre Dame as God testing their faith.

Others among the French, including the yellow vests, will be genuinely distressed but not long moved in their depths. They are spiritually secular, or else a gauche par principe, and thus anti-clerical in the historical sense that they oppose the influence of the Church in French society. 

These will number in the ranks of the country’s Socialists, its few remaining Communists, its Green activists, and its vast, far-left "France Unbowed" movement. Importantly, the denomination also describes much of France’s globalized business and financial elite, those who feel quite at ease in New York, Shanghai, and Davos as well as Paris.  

For these people, Notre Dame is surely a crucial symbol of France, but this historical-cultural France is not their lived reality. They are French, but not very "French" in the way the world likes to think of the French.

For these groups, and for most people internationally, a disaster that toppled the Eiffel Tower would be more shocking. Yet it isn’t much of a secret that a lot of French people consider the Eiffel Tower to be kitsch.

Now the better news: Against the background of an already troubled country, this tragic destruction of part of Notre Dame is an opportunity for France and the French to experience a moment of political and cultural clarity. The fire at Notre Dame is not world-historical, but it is nonetheless a shock to the country.

That shock is an opportunity for President Emmanuel Macron to personify the country. Macron can be very effective in this role. Especially when he feels moved himself, when the issue is urgent, and when he’s speaking his own thoughts, rather than sharing tired platitudes.

In fact, Macron had scheduled a major speech Monday evening, outlining the government's response to the yellow vest movement and the nationwide series of town hall meetings he held to discuss what many French people see as their own, and the country's, first-order problems: A cost of living that leaves many impoverished, and crushing tax burdens. 

Macron sensibly postponed this speech so that he can marry his concerns as a policymaker with his role as the embodiment of the State in the Fifth Republic, as created by Charles de Gaulle.

He must make the fire at Notre Dame into a significant moment in the French national narrative. Not exactly as a father of the country, but something like that. He needs to muster as much de Gaulle as he can.

So far it is not going very well. Macron sounds artificial, like he is trying too hard. A controversy over the motives of donors has also weakened the cause.

But the political and PR battle is not lost yet. This is a moment in which Macron needs to be himself and trust his instincts -- as the French would call it, his "genius." He will need just that if he is going to use this moment to bring France's disparate factions together behind a common vision of what France can be.

The views expressed are the author's own.

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