Notre république: our divided France remembers itself
The fiercely secular country has discovered its muscle memory for Catholicism
Notre-Dame de Paris will always be associated in French minds with Victor Hugo, but the inferno raging on Monday night really evoked William Blake.
We Parisians love our cathedral, but we’d taken it for granted. It was stone-built; carved by guild companions who worked for eternity, not the latest zoning plans. It could not fall.
And so, as we heard of the great fire, we passed through the five stages of grief.
Denial – cathedrals don’t burn down, they are built like fortresses. Anger – was it terrorism? An attack against France? Unrealistic hope – surely the firefighters could do more? Depression – this hit at about 8pm, when nightfall showed the 30m-high flames roaring unabated against the darkened sky, at the heart of the church that had sent Crusaders to the Holy Land, seen Napoleon crowned and Charles de Gaulle hear mass at the Liberation of Paris.
And finally, acceptance, as silent bystanders, pushed off the Île de la Cité by the fire brigade and police to the outer banks of the Seine, sang the hymns that had for 850 years resonated in the nave of Notre Dame and prayed.
France, the fiercely secular country, was discovering its muscle memory for Catholicism, the religion that built so many of its monuments, wrote so much of its music, painted so much of its art.
Emmanuel Macron, brought down so low in the polls by five months of Yellow Vests unrest, cancelled the television address in which he was to announce reforms following the weeks of the Great Debate.
He came to the cathedral instead, with his prime minister, his interior minister, his wife, the Archbishop of Paris, and the mayor of Paris, the socialist Anne Hidalgo, a political opponent.
For the first time in almost two years, he found the right words.
Soberly, he said the cathedral belonged to all the French; Catholics and others; and to world civilisation.
He saluted the bravery of the firefighters, and he vowed to rebuild Notre Dame.
The 29-year-old Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame once, in 1831.
Commissioned by a second-rate publishing house trying to imitate Walter Scott’s successes (and sales), the young playwright wrote Notre-Dame de Paris in 18 months.
It was sniffily received by critics, including Balzac, as a Gothic potboiler, but readers immediately took to it.
Suddenly Parisians started looking at the great dilapidated old cathedral, damaged during the French Revolution and patchily repaired, with new and possessive eyes.
The success of the book led to popular support for extensive (and expensive) renovations by France’s most noted medievalist architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
He replaced the spire broken by Robespierre’s partisans, along with many statues of saints, and reconstituted medieval architecture.
The cathedral he recreated did not much change until yesterday.
But then, as now, it was suddenly revealed as one of the beating hearts of France.
It tied us to our past and projected us to the future. It stood as a revelation of what France and French culture meant to the world, and what centuries of faith, accreted in stone layers, blown into fragile rose windows of stained glass, sung to the accompaniment of the Grand Orgue, could embody.
In Holy Week, the fire was an illustration of death and resurrection. The people gathered felt it. It showed even in the grave faces of the young firemen.
The country, so bitterly divided, stood together in grief and hope.
Victor Hugo imagined Esmeralda and the Hunchback, but he also created, in Les Misérables, Gavroche, the irrepressible Parisian urchin.
The Gavroches in all of us have been watching with holy glee the first (secular) miracle of the night: the war of the billionaires, as French tycoons duke it out to pledge ever more to Notre Dame’s reconstruction.
François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen), a Breton and a staunch Catholic, announced his family would give 100 million euros.His bitter enemy, Bernard Arnault, founder of LVMH (Dior, Louis Vuitton, Moët), countered this and promised 200 million.This is providing us French with our first laughs since we heard of the fire.The merchants are fighting to rebuild the Temple, and we have not lost hope.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)