By Lauren Paynter
On a late Monday evening in April, Parisians and tourists alike, stood in a sombre silence as Notre-Dame de Paris – ‘Our Lady of Paris’ – was ablaze in fire. The world watched in horror as 400 firefighters desperately tried to save the cathedral. Although the spire and roof collapsed, the main structure of the cathedral has largely been saved and preserved, along with the two towers. Currently, work is being done to save and retrieve valuable artwork and cultural artefacts inside Notre-Dame. Regardless, a spectacularly devastating blaze was responsible for polluting the Paris skyline.
For centuries, Notre-Dame – as well as being a place of worship – has represented a series of human accomplishment over generations. Pillaged and desecrated during the Revolution, Notre-Dame was stripped of its religious vigour in a display of rebellion against the French political system. In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte began restoration of Notre-Dame, anticipating his coronation that would be housed in the cathedral in 1804, and ushering in a new era for France.
Following years of political turbulence and neglect for the cathedral itself, Victor Hugo’s 1831 work, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, facilitated public awareness and immortalised the cathedral in popular culture. The liberation of Paris during the Second World War was celebrated within the walls of Notre-Dame, as the cathedral remained remarkably unscathed during both World Wars. In recent years, Notre-Dame has become a pillar of hope and a setting for mourning following the terror attacks that have ripped through France and Europe as whole.
Notre-Dame is a champion of French culture and vitality, attracting 13 million visitors each year as one of the most visited landmarks in Paris. The construction of the cathedral began in 1163 under the orders of the Bishop of Paris in a period where King Louis VII of France sought to exemplify Paris as the political, economic and cultural capital of France by building significant monuments across the city. Built over a period of 200 years, standing for over 850 years, Notre-Dame was gutted in hours by flames attributed to the current restoration works.
In 2015, Notre-Dame’s bells sounded the death knell after the terror attacks that killed 130 people. Like all landmarks of Paris, Notre-Dame was closed immediately after the attack, but opened just two days later for a special service to honour the victims. The church again became a symbol of valour and solidarity of the French people in the wake of tragedy. Notre-Dame has witnessed France’s most difficult periods of public grief and political turbulence. At the same time, Notre-Dame has, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, been the “place where we experienced our greatest moments”.
In 2017, Notre-Dame itself became the location for a planned attack, which was swiftly contained by security forces after the assailant attacked a police officer. France’s enemies have sought to utilise this symbol of strength as a vulnerability, desperately seeking to attack the heart of France. The French fought back however, and reclaimed their city. It was therefore no surprise that Parisians wept on the streets, as their iconic landmark was engulfed by flames.
Over multiple years, France lay witness to various terrorist attacks, ranging from lone-wolf sporadic assaults, to serious premeditated acts perpetrated by cell organisations. Paris, Nice, Strasbourg and various other French towns and cities became victims to these attacks. Each time, far-right groups circulated claims that immigration exists as a root cause of terrorist attacks in an attempt to divide the population and foster resentment through the dissemination of fake news and misinformation. The effect of this was seen prolifically in the 2017 election campaign, as far-right candidate Marine Le Pen received the second largest portion of votes in the first round of voting.
As the war against the Islamic State in the Middle East has almost virtually come to an end, so too have the attacks in France. What remains, however, are the political divides regarding immigration, race and what it means to be truly French. Nothing is more of an embodiment of what it is to be French, than Notre-Dame itself. Yet in 1443, Henry VI of England – a foreigner – was crowned as the French King inside the cathedral. If a foreign monarch can be accepted as French within the walls of Notre-Dame, maybe the fire will serve as a reminder that French society can be so much more inclusive and united than they currently are.
The fire has engulfed Notre-Dame at a time when the country is as divided as ever. The gilets jaunes protests have remained a hallmark of French streets since November 2018 when over 300,000 French men and women protested against fuel taxes. Although individual protest numbers have dropped, the chaotic nature of the protests have continued into 2019. For months, the protestors have filled the streets of France and allowed for destruction and violence, as cars and businesses have been looted and torched.
Even as Macron backed down on his fuel taxes and sought to appease the protestors with concessions, the marches continued. The gilets jaunes is unprecedented; a grassroots campaign with no leader, fueled purely by discontent. The protests have become larger than a simple fuel tax, representing the unequal economic distribution that has been slowly fracturing France for decades. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas and small to medium-size towns exist on the periphery of the French economy, fostering resentment against the wealth exhibited by the elite inhabitants of the metropolitan and urban areas.
The protestors have, in their brightly coloured vests, been successful in generating attention to the deep divides in French society. Like Victor Hugo showed the plight of Notre-Dame, the protestors, too, have demonstrated the plight of the French working class. Protesting and striking has been, since the Revolution two centuries ago, synonymous with French political expression. However, the recent protests have been marred by violence, with police forced to use tear gas and water cannons to control some extreme factions of protestors. The rioting, looting and torching of luxury stores and cars has to some extent undermined the success of the protests.
It seems almost ironic that fire, an aspect incorporated by these wide-scale protests, has in turn devastated one of France’s greatest treasures. Maybe it’s a sign of the times? Maybe it’s a sign that France needs to reconsider what is important? Maybe they will reach the conclusion that they should use Notre-Dame as a place of unity as they did after Paris was liberated in 1944, and seventy years later after the terrorist attacks, instead of using it as a divisive political pawn.
It is clear that to the people of France Notre-Dame is more than just a building; it represents an entire history and a way of life – how they have developed into the nation they are today. Victor Hugo’s novel essentially made the cathedral a character itself. It is commonly known as ‘point zero’, the point from which all distances to Paris are measured in France. Notre-Dame is the centre of Paris and therefore the centre of the nation. Would it be too symbolic to claim that France is exploding from within? The divisions that have come to the forefront of French society through the gilets jaunes protests and terrorist attacks have jarred the nation into a period of instability and uncertainty. As Strasbourg became the target of another terrorist attack in December 2018, elsewhere in France, protests continued. Perhaps Notre-Dame will unite France at this pivotal time? Perhaps not, time will tell.
Regardless, France responded to the Notre-Dame fire as they always do; with vigour and emotion. Macron vowed to rebuild the landmark. Priests around France rang their bells in prayer for Notre-Dame. And Parisians gathered to sing on the streets of the capital. One French philanthropist has already pledged €100 million to contribute to rebuilding the cathedral. Despite the colossal damage to France’s greatest landmark, the French are determined to ensure Notre-Dame remains the central pillar in their nation’s future, just as it has been in their past.
This article was produced by Pivot – A MIAS Publication.
Read more like it at pivot.mias.org.au