Notre Dame's scars offer France a chance to heal



“On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.”

Those are the words of the narrator in Victor Hugo's iconic Notre-Dame de Paris that used the cloak of narrative to issue a plea to the people of Paris to spring to action and preserve the historic Gothic architecture of France. The Latin phrase might better be translated thus: time is a devourer, man more so. Yesterday we endured the tragedy of learning that fire is more so once again. Never mind a wrinkle or a scar, the aged queen of cathedrals has now suffered a near-fatal wound.

This wound has come at a critical time for the nation, long plagued by the civil unrest of the gilets jaunes movement. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron had to cancel a televised address he was due to give outlining his plans for France’s political future following long public consultation in response to the protests. Instead, he spoke in front of a still-burning Notre-Dame Cathedral, announcing the launch of a fund to rebuild it. “Notre-Dame de Paris is our history, our literature, the life of our imagination, the place where we have lived all our great moments, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations,” he said. “It’s a cathedral of all the French even when they have never been to it.”

Epidemics, wars and liberations

The ‘scars’ to which Victor Hugo referred on the Cathedral are different from those invoked by Macron. Where Hugo was lamenting the “bastard arch” inflicted on the monument by later architects, Macron refers to the scars of a nation. For 856 years the cathedral, in its various stages, has stood sentinel over a city that has seen division, bloodshed, triumph, romance and rejoices. Its walls were silent and impervious to the bubonic plague that decimated the European continent. Its 28 stone biblical Kings of Judah were decapitated the same year as Marie Antoinette. The caverns beneath its now collapsed vaulted ceilings reverberated with the hymns of a 400-voice choir as Napoleon was crowned at its altar. Its massive bells roared to signal the end of the First World War and again when Paris was liberated in the Second.

Just months ago, Notre-Dame de Paris again watched over a divided city, as thousands of protesters marched past the cathedral on a symbolic tour of Paris. Yesterday, the scene froze. Parisians stood together watching the cathedral burn. Some sang, others filmed, some watched and some wept. Paris was again, briefly, united in sadness.

The path forward

With the devastating damage done to one of France’s most recognisable monuments, there exists a small opportunity for French President Macron to mobilise the nation - and Europe. Although it would be foolish to suggest such an event could be a golden bullet to fix all his government’s maladies, it represents the chance to remind Europeans about their shared patrimony and foster positive civic participation within the bloc. Unlike other recent tragedies in France and Europe, the Notre Dame Cathedral fire has come at no human cost and is not itself a product of division. And though some on the fringes will seek to exploit it, it must not become a catalyst for division.

The announcement of a European fund to restore the cathedral is a good first step, and this should include both individuals and governments in the European Union. This would afford European governments and individuals in the region the opportunity to contribute positively to a cultural icon. Likewise, it would send a clear message to Eurosceptics in France (of which there are many) that the European Union is willing to come to the aid of its fellow member countries when they require it.

Governments as far away as Australia pondered contributing funding to restore the building. That such a thought occurred despite the fact that nobody was killed and France is an affluent country is a poignant reminder of the power of symbols. A gesture, like a public vigil outside the cathedral, could also go some way in aiding the French president’s response.

The gilets jaunes movement has its origins in a feeling of disconnectedness in French society. The Notre Dame Cathedral has seen the French people through some of history’s deepest divisions. The images of its facade still standing unperturbed by the flame should remind all of Europe that the project is not over. And for Macron’s administration, getting the response to the burning of an anchor of French identity right, as well as legislating meaningful policy change beyond just cutting taxes could signal the beginning of a resolution gilets jaunes unrest.

Joe Bourke & Elliott Brennan are the Communications and Publications Directors respectively for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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