What Notre Dame fire re­veals about the soul of France

Pride mixes with grief, anger, his­tory

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Erlanger

PARIS – France, a fun­da­men­tally Ro­man Catholic coun­try whose cit­i­zens rarely at­tend Mass, un­der­stands the story and the mean­ing of Easter. It is a story of res­ur­rec­tion and re­birth, of the trans­for­ma­tion of some­thing pro­fane into some­thing sa­cred.

In a sub­dued Paris on Tues­day, as Parisians and tourists gath­ered to stare at the smokesmudged stones of what is left of the Cathe­dral of Notre Dame de Paris, re­lieved that the en­tire struc­ture had not col­lapsed, there was talk of res­ur­rec­tion and re­con­struc­tion, but also of anger and shock at the pos­si­bil­ity of what many con­sid­ered of­fi­cial malfea­sance and neg­li­gence.

While in­ves­ti­ga­tions con­tinue into the cause of the blaze, there were ques­tions about whether the re­fur­bish­ment bud­get was too small, whether more fire pro­tec­tion and even sprin­klers should have been pro­vided, and how thor­oughly an ini­tial fire alarm was in­ves­ti­gated be­fore it was dis­missed. The fire was not dis­cov­ered un­til an­other alarm sounded 23 min­utes later.

“It’s un­par­don­able, what hap­pened,” said Karine Berger, who works at the nearby Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou mu­seum. “Noth­ing ex­cuses this fire, to lose the work of cen­turies in a day.”

But there was also a quiet sense of his­tory, of watch­ing some­thing grander than them­selves, and a com­mit­ment to see the cathe­dral re­built, be­cause for many, it is the heart of Paris.

“Notre Dame de Paris is Paris,” Berger said. “It’s a ref­er­ence, it’s kilo­me­ter zero. It’s how we mea­sure dis­tances all over France.”

More than that, “it’s our roots, our his­tory, our civili

za­tion,” she said. “I think of the gen­er­a­tions of artists who spent all their lives work­ing on this mon­u­ment to God, to be­lief.”

This cathe­dral has out­lasted gen­er­a­tions, and it will out­last us, said Claude Fosse, who works for an elec­tri­cal com­pany here. His part­ner had once been up in the an­cient oak roof that burned Mon­day night, he said, his voice quiet with awe, and “on the great beams of that for­est you could see the sig­na­tures of the crafts­men from 800 years ago.”

The cathe­dral will be re­built, he said, “but it’s not go­ing to be the same, you’ll see the patches.” At 51, he said thought­fully, “I doubt I will be alive to see it com­pleted.”

Notre Dame bears a spe­cial place be­cause of its com­bi­na­tion of the sec­u­lar, the sa­cred and the pro­fane. “On one level it’s a phys­i­cal sym­bol of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, even more than St. Pe­ter’s in Rome, given its age,” said Fran­cois Heis­bourg, a French an­a­lyst. “But on an­other level it is em­bed­ded into pop­u­lar cul­ture.” It features in Vic­tor Hugo, of course, but also in films like “Amelie” and “Rata­touille.” And it has been Dis­ney­fied in “The Hunch­back of Notre Dame,” an an­i­mated mu­si­cal.

“So even in dis­tant sec­tions of Amer­ica and the rest of the world, ev­ery­one knows this cathe­dral,” Heis­bourg said. “It’s uni­ver­sal, West­ern, re­li­gious, lit­er­ary and cul­tural, and that’s what makes it dif­fer­ent from any other ob­ject. It’s the whole spec­trum from the triv­ial to the tran­scen­dent, the sa­cred to the pro­fane.”

It is among the places in West­ern Europe most vis­ited by tourists. And yet the out­pour­ing of sym­pa­thy, sup­port and emotion “was quite un­ex­pected for many of us,” said Bruno Ter­trais, deputy di­rec­tor of the Foun­da­tion for Strate­gic Re­search. “Of course we say it’s the heart and soul of Paris, but be­cause it’s al­ways there, we didn’t re­al­ize it, ex­actly, we took it for granted.”

When the spire came crash­ing down, many found them­selves re­call­ing a still grim­mer event: the col­lapse of the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers.

Nearly 3,000 peo­ple were killed in the Sept. 11 at­tacks, which re­main by far the dead­li­est act of ter­ror­ism in his­tory. No one died at Notre Dame de Paris, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors so far reckon the fire to be an ac­ci­dent. But the ris­ing pall of smoke, watched world­wide on tele­vi­sion, evoked a fa­mil­iar com­bi­na­tion of hor­ror and as­ton­ish­ment. It also brought on some corners of so­cial me­dia an un­der­cur­rent of Is­lam­o­pho­bia and wild ru­mors of ter­ror­ism and con­spir­acy.

These are darker themes that are only partly hid­den in the cur­rent re­ac­tion of re­lief that the dam­age wasn’t worse. They re­flect a longer and wrench­ing de­bate about reli­gion, about Eu­ro­pean iden­tity, about sec­u­lar­ism and the role of Is­lam in so­ci­ety.

The de­bate is par­tic­u­larly strong in France, Ter­trais noted, with the emer­gence of a hard­er­right re­li­gious con­ser­vatism since 2013, when in­tensely con­tested leg­is­la­tion about same-sex mar­riage in­spired thou­sands of peo­ple, in­clud­ing priests, rab­bis and imams, to protest the change in the streets.

“I would like to think that this hor­ri­ble fire will give us a chance to rec­on­cile our views on the role of Chris­tian­ity in our his­tory,” Ter­trais said.

But even Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron re­ferred to global Chris­tian­ity in his speech Mon­day night, noted An­drew Hussey, a Paris-based scholar with the Univer­sity of London. “Tonight, my thoughts ob­vi­ously go out to the Catholics, in France and all over the world, es­pe­cially in this Holy Week,” Macron said. “I know how they feel and we sup­port them.”

While meant to con­sole, his words touch on the con­tin­u­ing ten­sion in France be­tween Catholi­cism and post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary uni­ver­sal­ism, which was deeply an­tire­li­gious. Laicite, or sec­u­lar­ism, would be brought in as late as 1905 “to po­lice the power of the Catholic church, which is very politi­cized in France,” Hussey said.

Of course, there was cel­e­bra­tion that the worst did not hap­pen. This fire, how­ever hor­ri­ble, killed no one. It will not be re­mem­bered in the same way as the 1755 earth­quake, fire and tsunami in Lis­bon, for ex­am­ple, which hap­pened on the Feast of All Saints, killed around 70,000 peo­ple and shook be­lief through­out Europe.

“Our city, our his­tory, our faith, our civ­i­liza­tion,” Anne-Elisabeth Moutet said in a Twit­ter mes­sage. “To­mor­row all church bells should ring for the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Notre Dame.” And so they did.

And the French, helped ini­tially by the enor­mous wealth of two com­pet­i­tive busi­ness­men from the world of fash­ion, Bernard Ar­nault and Fran­cois Pin­ault, and no doubt from smaller con­tri­bu­tions from all over the world, will re­build.

Cathe­drals seem to sur­vive the vi­cis­si­tudes and im­per­fec­tions of mankind. It is al­ways hard to get into the minds of those who lived 800 years ago and more, who be­lieved in the re­al­ity of hell and the prom­ise of heaven. They worked on an enor­mous project, which Heis­bourg com­pared in its way to the Amer­i­can ef­fort to land a man on the moon.

They did so with grandeur and be­lief, reach­ing up to heaven, how­ever im­per­fectly. So this fire, too, and some of the ug­li­ness that has emerged around it in the world of so­cial me­dia, is an­other re­minder of our fallen state, im­per­fect, mis­take-prone and, as Flaubert once wrote, “Lan­guage is a cracked ket­tle drum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Getty Images

Peo­ple gather near the Notre Dame Cathe­dral in Paris on Tues­day af­ter a ma­jor fire a day ear­lier quickly spread across the build­ing, caus­ing the fa­mous spire to col­lapse.

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