PARIS — Nothing quite evokes “end times” like watching the Notre-Dame, that stunning cathedral at the capital’s navel, burst into flames. When I heard the news, I ran to the closest viewing point—in my case, the Pont de Sully, the bridge that jets through the Île Saint-Louis, connecting the Right and Left banks—and squeezed into a crowd of awestruck onlookers.
Paris was teeming with energy, locals and tourists trudging toward the action, wanting to get a glimpse, but the chaos clashed with a spectral quiet: The flames spoke for themselves.
We were all transfixed. The scene was aesthetically pleasing: the bright orange blaze, the dark clouds of smoke against the picturesque spring sunset. But it wasn’t just the eerie beauty that captivated the crowds. You can’t watch history crumble and not see a portrait of longing: the things you never did, or forgot to do. When I was a grad student here, I’d walk by Notre-Dame every day on my way to class, until I stopped because the tourists started getting on my nerves. I convinced myself that I would forever be a Parisian, and that one morning, eventually, I’d wake up early, beat the crowds, and take it all in.
It’s humbling when that comforting sense of permanence is shattered. I guess I should have paid closer attention the last time I watched the film “Before Sunset.” “You have to think that Notre-Dame will be gone one day,” the French actress Julie Delpy, her hair blowing in the wind, tells Ethan Hawke as they cruise down the Seine on one of those boat tours. “This is great,” she goes on to say. “I’ve never done this. I forget how beautiful Paris is.”
A friend—another American journalist and Paris resident—texted me on Tuesday morning: “What do you make of the fire? Its meaning?” she asked. I wasn’t sure what to say, or that it meant anything at all. A cathedral, standing for some thousand years, caught on fire. “Oh gosh I don’t know,” I texted back, and offered some fatalism: “Mostly morbid thoughts about the fate of humanity and all the beauty that once was.” Is there more?
Maybe. Analyses have proliferated about the symbolism of it all: A monumental cathedral, up in flames in a country consumed by battles over religion and attached to its secular identity, rooted in a backlash against the Catholic Church. “I would like to think that this horrible fire will give us a chance to reconcile our views on the role of Christianity in our history,” Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, told The New York Times.
That would be nice, and much needed. But as the dust settles, it’s immediately clear that the fire is being absorbed into the current political moment, one defined by economic grievances.
When Notre-Dame burned, Paris felt united in a collective sense of loss. Just two days later, many see the outpouring that followed as evidence of the glaring inequalities they’ve been protesting for months.
It took place in the context of the Yellow Vest protests, which, entering their 23rd consecutive week this Saturday, have already mauled some of the capital’s most moneyed neighborhoods; violent protesters have vandalized major landmarks. And had the fire not broken out Monday night, President Emmanuel Macron would have given a much-anticipated speech to share the lessons from the “great national debate”—his marathon of meetings with local officials launched in response to popular complaints expressed by the protesters and their supporters. Instead, he gave a somber address at the scene of the fire: “Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, our imagination,” he said, pledging to rebuild the cathedral.
On Tuesday, Macron addressed the nation once again, but said the political conversation would have to wait a few more days. In just five years, he promised, Notre-Dame would be restored, and “even more beautiful.” He went on, evoking his aspirational role as historic modernizer, “The fire at Notre-Dame reminds us that history doesn’t stop and that we always have trials to overcome.” A reference to the fire and, perhaps, the political climate. “We are this nation of builders,” he added, “we have so much to rebuild.”
Five years seems ambitious, but funds to restore the cathedral are pouring in: Within 24 hours, donations had exceeded 800 million euros (around $900 million). That includes 200 million euros from Bernard Arnault, one of the world’s richest men and the head of LVMH—which owns 70 worldwide brands, including Louis Vuitton, Sephora and Marc Jacobs. Another 100 million euros came from François-Henri Pinault, the head of Kerring, which owns luxury brands including Gucci and Saint Laurent. The Bettencourt Meyers family and L’Oréal Group did the same, and the list goes on.
The financial outpouring from French billionaires, while raising hopes that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt in short order, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the citizens who have taken to the streets since November to denounce economic inequality. For many, it proves their point.
The Yellow Vest leader Ingrid Levavasseur said it was time to “return to reality.” On primetime television Wednesday morning, she lamented the “inertia of major companies in the face of social misery, but who prove their ability to come up with a ridiculous amount in just one night for Notre-Dame.” Another Yellow Vest leader, Maxime Nicolle, echoed that sentiment: “A symbol burns and dies,” he tweeted Monday night, “but a people are asking to live! Both should be rebuilt!”
Philippe Martinez, the secretary-general of the CGT, France’s most powerful union, made a similar point: “You see that there are billionaires who have a lot, a lot of money,” he said on the radio station Franceinfo. “In one click, 200 million, 100 million, it also shows the inequalities in this country, which we denounce regularly.”
Macron’s pro-business agenda had quickly earned him the moniker “president of the rich.” He came under fire for slashing France’s wealth tax, known as the ISF, and introducing a flat rate on capital gains in 2017 shortly after he took office. The Yellow Vest protesters have demanded the ISF’s restoration, but the government has insisted it will not budge, even as it made other concessions.
When Notre-Dame burned Monday night, Paris felt united in a collective sense of loss. But just two days later, many frustrated people here see the outpouring that followed as further evidence of the glaring inequalities they’ve been protesting for months.
The American author Anand Giridharadas, who has written extensively about inequality and philanthropy, also weighed in. “For a second, I thought that this fire would be one of those moments where France unites,” he told Mathieu Magnaudeix, U.S. correspondent for the French news site Médiapart. “And then in a matter of hours, I saw a scenario emerge that’s very common in the United States: the recourse to billionaires to fix, in place of the state, society’s crises and problems.”
Lead image credit: Getty Images ©2019 Chesnot