As it always seems to be the case with situations like this, I heard about the fire at Notre-Dame by chance – after seeing a tweet by an American expressing sadness at the sight of the Cathedral on fire. The French Ambassador to the United States in an interview later shared how he was surprised by his reaction – he felt like he, himself was burning. Then he was shocked to realise that he was crying.
The intensity of my own reaction also came as a surprise. I kept thinking about it that night and into the following day. I don’t feel French in any sense, though I’ve lived in Paris for more than a decade and my son has grown up here. I’m not Catholic, even if my parents were and would have identified this way until they felt alienated from the Church after the Second Vatican in the 1960s; none of their children went to Catholic schools. But I grew up in an environment that was influenced by this religious and cultural heritage. With grandparents named Byrne, Prendergast, O’Halloran and Munday how could it be otherwise.
Awkwardly, I tried to find some way of paying respect to the event and how I felt: I shared this video of bells, marking the Cathedral’s 850th anniversary on Twitter - afterwards noticing that some kind of white rights/believer person in the U.S had liked it, unfortunately.
Some time ago I remember reading someone make the comment that people (in the West) are more affected by the loss of heritage – the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 or Daesh laying waste to mosques and museums in Syria and Iraq – than the deaths of people in the same locations. This is true in terms of how journalists approach these stories too, the way they build up the shock-drama element, the sense of pathos.
Perhaps people find it easier to express sadness over the loss of “culture” the same way they are more likely to donate to crises linked to natural disasters rather than political violence. This might reflect cultural bias – or racism – but it could just as much stem from a tendency to lean towards the tragic in an almost literary sense, while seeking to be included in the narrative. Much of the despair expressed worldwide over the fire at Notre-Dame resembled this, with many adding personal recollections of their visits to Paris to their expressions of shock.
Apparently, again gleaned from a cursory look at Twitter there was a reaction to the international expressions of sympathy, with many exhibiting a “fuck France” attitude. Much the same dynamic played out after the terrorist attack at The Bataclan in 2015 - with many feeling frustrated by what they see to be the event’s over-exposure, compared with other like events in poorer parts of the world or where the people affected by it are not predominantly white.
Historians Alexandre Gady and Claude Gauvard detail in a France Culture video that the Cathedral had been threatened before: during the “terrorist phase” of the French Revolution and then later in 1871 by the Communards, who tried to torch the Cathedral, alongside other buildings in Paris, as the “capital of the reactionary bourgeoisie” (to use their phrase).
During the First World War, the Germans tried to intimidate the French population by targeting Notre-Dame in an air raid but bombed the nearby Saint-Gervais church, leading to 100 deaths. The Nazis during the Occupation didn’t dare “touch” it, being well-aware of its significance for French people.
The French Ambassador to Washington when describing his reaction mentioned how he walked past Notre-Dame daily. This detail reflects something of the nature of shock and how it’s experienced. After the massacre at The Bataclan I also held onto this kind of reaction (I kept thinking about how I had seen a show there just weeks before, in the same place where so many were killed).
But it also says something about the way Notre-Dame is seen by people living in Paris. It is part of the landscape, albeit an essential part – remember that all distances begin there.
I have been inside Notre-Dame only a few times. (The last visit turned me off, it was jammed with tourists, filming or taking photos on their phones. It’s always surprised me how laidback the French are about the impact of mass tourism on places of enormous cultural significance, it’s almost as if they accept the influx in certain places if other places are “spared”. Thirteen million people visited Notre-Dame each year. Place du Tertre in Montmartre, a square with low-rise buildings near Sacré-Coeur where Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo lived and Renoir had a studio is similar in this regard. Today it’s unvisitable, so crowded with people you can hardly move around, a kind of Disneyfied hell-hole with men in berets offering to draw you as a cartoon figure, spruiking their talents in multiple languages).
Notre-Dame was - is - the background to parts of my life here: a place I saw when doing other things in my day-to-day, when getting out at Saint-Michel, or buying books at Gibert Jeune. A place I walked past, and met friends nearby.
But it also has deep spiritual and emotional importance in Paris - for Parisians and French people in general - that’s hard to express. Speaking about it with my son, trying to find the words, I said that the fire bothered me more than if the Sydney Opera House had similarly been damaged. Quick as a flash, the soon to be 13 year-old replied, “That’s because you’re from Melbourne.” (Okay).
Outside the mildly humorous competition between France’s two richest men to out-donate each other, in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty –
“In three days, the cathedral has been pledged €100m (£86m) from Francois-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent; €200m (£172m) from the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton fame; another €200m from L’Oreal owners the Bettencourt Meyers family, and €100 from French oil giant Total.”
… some aspects of the Notre-Dame story are particularly touching. The Fire Brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier who insisted on entering the cathedral with the firefighters - the heat of the fire reached 800C - and helped salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Fournier was also present during the aftermath of the massacre at The Bataclan in 2015, comforting the injured and praying over the dead.
And then the work of the firefighters themselves, who symbolise Paris in a way that isn’t duplicated to the same degree, to my knowledge, elsewhere (seen jogging in groups in shorts throughout the city, selling tickets to the annual ball outside the various Town Halls). It came down to 15-30 minutes between the total building’s destruction. All focus was on ensuring that the fire didn’t reach the gothic bell towers, where one of the bells - the 13 tonne Emmanuel bell - could have sent the towers crashing down.
These videos, too, I find deeply moving, of people coming together spontaneously to sing and pray, while watching the fire. Some with tears in their eyes.
This is the final piece of music played at Notre-Dame before the fire.