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Notre-Dame fire raises important questions

By Pascale Caussat, The National  21 April 2019

People of Glasgow know what it is to cry over a national treasure. When the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, was destroyed by the flames not only once but twice, you felt a sense of loss similar to mourning for a loved one.

You didn’t only lose the intricate carvings of wood and stone, the delicate pieces of furniture and interior design, the amount of skills that came into the conceiving and manufacturing of the space.

You also recalled the moments you spent there, the people who studied between those walls, the time and passion that were put into the renovation.

On top of that, you felt anger for the recklessness that could let that tragedy occur.

All the emotions felt towards a 19th century building are multiplied when applied to a cathedral that was erected 850 years ago. Last Monday, the images of the fire engulfing the roof of Notre-Dame and raging dangerously close to the two bell towers were a heartbreak.

When the 93-metre-high spire of wood and lead dramatically collapsed, you couldn’t help but think of the Twin Towers in New York -of course and luckily nobody was hurt this time, apart from a firefighter and two policemen whose bravery was celebrated worldwide.

Although it dated “only” from 1860, the Viollet-le-Duc addition was a totem of Paris. Like the Eiffel Tower or the Invalides, the landmarks of the French capital are mostly visited by tourists and not Parisians, yet you feel reassured to see these familiar outlines on your journey across the city. Personally, I enjoy the view towards Notre-Dame and the Île de la Cité – the historic centre of Paris – each time I cross the Seine. I always remember that some people may see it only once in their life and make it the holiday of a lifetime, when I am lucky to be able to admire it anytime I want.

Notre-Dame de Paris may not be the most beautiful cathedral in France – I find Chartres to have more spiritual grandeur – let alone in the world – il Duomo in Milan is like no other.

But it is the most visited monument in the most visited city in the world and has inspired numerous artists, from novels to paintings, musicals and films. To think that you might have lost it forever and with it the magnificent rose window, the impressive organ and all the works of art it contains, makes you shudder. You realise that the beautiful things you’ve always had in front of your eyes may not be there forever.

The 13th-century “forest” of oak that supported the roof is gone, along with the sweat and blood of the medieval tradesmen and women who carved it, and sometimes signed their names on it.

Whether you believe in God or not, you can’t help but feel in awe of the skills of our distant ancestors who embarked on that project knowing they wouldn’t see the end of it in their lifetime. I think that’s what moved people the most in a secular and mostly faithless country like France: that humanity was able to build such an ambitious work of art and that we may never be able to reproduce this level of craftmanship. Or may we?

In French, we have a phrase to say ‘‘Let’s hurry up’’: On ne va pas attendre 107 ans. It means we are not going to wait for 107 years and refers to the time it took to build the cathedral. It shows how the site has infused our language and our popular culture.

A day after the fire, President Emmanuel Macron stated that the cathedral would be rebuilt in five years. According to specialists, this is not impossible. The renowned architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte explained on the national radio that the deadline could be met ‘‘if we make the right technological choices. We don’t have to use lead, which is very heavy, we don’t have to use oak, since the framework is not visible”.

France has a plethora of skilled carpenters, stone-cutters and masons, who learned their trade in the prestigious Compagnons du Devoir apprenticeship programme, and who would be honoured to take part in such an exciting challenge. For the spire, the government has launched an international architecture contest to decide whether to rebuild it in its original (19th-century) form or to adapt it “to the techniques and challenges of our era”. No doubt thousands of inspired drafts will rush in.

Money is not an issue either. In less than three days, more than €1 billion was raised by various sponsors – luxury mammoths LVMH and Kering, L’Oréal, Apple, the oil company Total. When you shop at Monoprix, a chain of supermarkets, you can round off your ticket to contribute to the funding of the reconstruction work.

The ashes were still hot when the controversy started in the media and on the internet. This sudden outpouring of millions is shocking at a time when the yellow jackets are demonstrating for a better standard of living.

Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the leaders of the movement, denounced ‘‘the inertia of big companies in front of poverty, when they are able to raise a staggering amount of money for Notre-Dame overnight’’.

The presumed accident happened minutes before President Macron was due to broadcast a national address aimed at providing answers after the social unrest of the past months. Conspiracy theories soon arose to claim that the fire was staged by the government to divert the conversation. That was to be expected. It was also the case after the terrorist attack on Strasbourg last December.

The image of billionaires who “unblock” millions like pocket money definitely leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Charities such as Fondation Abbé Pierre (a Catholic priest who was buried in Notre-Dame and fought for the poor) claimed that only 1% of the sums would make all the difference for France’s less privileged people.

Commentators stressed that donations could be put against tax, which ultimately puts the effort on all taxpayers. Big corporations are already champions of tax evasion. LVMH and François Pinault (owner of Kering) promptly stated that they wouldn’t claim a tax deduction. ‘‘It is appalling to see that in France, you are criticized even when you do something [to help],’’ said Bernard Arnault, the owner of LVMH and the wealthiest man in France.

Then there is the question of timing. Rebuilding the cathedral in five years would make it just in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. For what purpose? Will we see a giant Coca Cola logo on the spire, or a Louis Vuitton cafe at the entrance? Not to forget the controversy on the ‘‘white privilege’’ – the fact that the world gathers in support of a centuries-old European monument, when the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro has only raised €250,000 euros for its rebuilding eight months after a fire almost entirely destroyed it.

‘‘The point is not to compare Notre-Dame and the Brazilian museum’s respective places in each people’s history and identity, but to admit that there are still huge differences in the way countries are treated, and this world order is less and less accepted,’’ commented the journalist Pierre Haski, a specialist in foreign affairs.

You could see things in a different way, and consider that France cherishes its cultural heritage the way New World countries should too. Brazil has no shortage of millionaires who could come to the rescue of their national museum. In a globalised world, the fragility of a medieval masterpiece is as heartbreaking as the destruction of Palmyre by Isis in Syria. Why create a competition between the two?
The French love controversies and many of them are relevant. But maybe this sad event can humble us for once. The sincere emotion of millions of people in Paris and around the world, rich or poor, young or old, Christians or else, was not a publicity stunt. After the terrorist attacks and the violent protests on the fringe of the yellow jacket movement, Paris has had its share of suffering. It needs some peace and quiet for a change.