When Have the French Let a Fire Stop Them?

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On Monday, April 15th, 2019, tragedy struck on Paris’s iconic Île de la Cité. A group of tourists was waiting eagerly to enter Notre Dame de Paris, the symbol of French culture and France itself since the twelfth century, when construction first began. Suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, the tourists were turned away from their tour of the cathedral.


To their horror, and the absolute devastation of the local Parisians in the area, a wisp of smoke escaped the towering spire, that looks out over Paris, and has for centuries, and seemingly, would forever. Soon, the wooden roof of Notre Dame was engulfed in flames.


That’s correct. Notre Dame de Paris, the sight of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre, the marriage of Marguerite de Valois, the church of the Cult of Reason, the Supreme Being, that has lived through Louis XIV, the bloody escapades of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s coronation, that Victor Hugo saved in his world – famous book, that saw the first and second World Wars, is burning.


The voices of those watching were dejected, speechless and besides themselves. Constructed over a period of two hundred years, the first stone was placed in 1163, and the last in 1345, Notre Dame de Paris is an international icon, and firefighters are still working to repair the damage and prevent anything further. Notre Dame is more than a church, more than a symbol of Catholicism that disturbingly caught fire on the Holy Week. It is a symbol of France.


The wooden roof (original from the 1300’s)  and the spire have collapsed. But what about the architectural talent of the flying buttresses? The Medieval care and historic flare? The irreplaceable artwork inside the cathedral itself? Is it possible to save? Authorities, including fire commander Jean Claude Gallet have confirmed that the main structure of the building, constructed out of stone, as well as the two iconic towers, and most of the artwork, have been saved. Luckily, the bronze statues mounted atop the spire were removed for renovations just days ago. The organ is, as authorities have confirmed, safe, as well as the relic thought to be part of the crown of thorns.


Only the roof and the spire are no more.


Of course, knowing the French, the greatest effort will be brought for reconstruction, but to rebuild the Medieval spire would be an enormous feat, not to mention the buttresses, should they collapse, and the wooden roof itself, at such a height, with such a famous and symbolic status.

Andre Finot, a spokesperson at Notre Dame said, “Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame.”


Emmanuel Macron canceled his speech for that evening, out of respect for the national monument, the most visited, coincidentally, in all of Europe. He is also expected to visit the scene later, to investigate the cause of the fire.


And of course the question remains, of how, how on earth could this have happened? How could the French, with such a great emphasis on preserving national heritage, let this happen? And not in fighting, not in a war, or a riot for freedom, or a meaningful moment, but a simple, wrong movement of construction?


No, of course that cannot be it! But what else? Certainly not even the angry gilets jaunes would burn down Notre Dame. Currently, the authorities are investigating the fire as an accident, saying that the renovations to the crumbling centuries – old structure may have caused the fire.


Macron has vowed to reconstruct the cathedral, for which he is beginning an international fundraiser, in effect on Tuesday, April 16th.  “I tell you solemnly tonight: We will rebuild this cathedral. Notre Dame of Paris is our history.” French millionaires and big – name business owners have already donated sums as large as 200 million euros.


But the greater question is not of how it started, but of what it means for France, and although it is with deep sadness that I write this, and though I know the Cathedral will not be the same, it is with profound hope that I say the following.


France is a country of perseverance. Of courage. Of treasure and riches unmatched by the world. As a scholar of French culture and history, I know the very love for Paris that rests in each French person’s bones, and I share in that love. It is a fever, as Robespierre once called it. Love for France is a fever.


France has been conquered by the Romans, from whom she finally won independence. She has been the home of the Avignon Papacy. She has lived through the shining era of Versailles; she has seen the sun. She has witnessed firsthand the brutality of the wars for religion. She was the capital of the Enlightenment, and Paris is the capital of art, science, food, fashion, music, culture, and history. She has been the home of a many a revolution: 1789, 1799, 1830, 1832, 1870, and many more. She saw Napoleon’s rise to power. Victor Hugo walked her roads and beautiful cities. She knew the magic of La Belle Époque, and the horror of both World Wars.


And she rebuilds. Step by step, and she comes out better because of it.


And a fire? When have the French let a fire stop them?


They are the fire.