On Notre-Dame

By Thomas Klauck

Reshaping French history and thinking

“All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time.”

-Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Illustration by  Rhianna Burns.

Illustration by Rhianna Burns.

Without a doubt this quote resonates in people’s heads after the devastating fire that destroyed part of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier last week. As many around the world were getting ready for Easter celebrations and as the French were awaiting President Macron’s address to the nation about the social debate following months of protests, global news channels modified their programming to cover the fire during what seemed to be the longest four hours ever. Seeing this historical monument on fire was heartbreaking for me, especially as a French national. It was as if we were mourning a close relative. The “Great Lady” was burning; she was dying. Thousands of Parisians along with tourists were standing helpless as the cathedral blazed and the firefighters struggled to contain it.

The cathedral belongs to the French State, but in a more spiritual sense it belongs to everyone in France and beyond.

As the most visited site in France before the Château de Versailles and the Eiffel Tower, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is very popular around the world. It is estimated that some 20 million visitors walk on its esplanade every year. Even as a Parisian, you would never get bored of walking by the cathedral or sitting on one of the many benches strewn along the Seine looking at the marvelous building. There is an inexplicable or, as some would say, a sacred feeling that made Notre-Dame a part of everyone’s family and culture. The cathedral belongs to the French State, but in a more spiritual sense it belongs to everyone in France and beyond.

Since its construction between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the cathedral has been at the core of French history. The union between the Queen of Scotland Marie Stuart and the French heir Francis II in 1558 was officially celebrated within its walls. Later in 1804 the coronation of the Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte took place in the very same cathedral.

Photograph of the Note-Dame Cathedral prior to the fire. Photo courtesy: Claire Duncan

Photograph of the Note-Dame Cathedral prior to the fire. Photo courtesy: Claire Duncan

However, without giving a full lecture on French history, times were relatively difficult for the French people in the nineteenth century and there was no true feeling of belonging as we know today. The cathedral was also in such a frail state that it would probably have fallen apart without necessary renovation. It was around that time that Victor Hugo wrote his famous piece The Hunchback of Notre-Dame to make public feel the urgency to do something about the cathedral. After his novel was published in 1831, a gigantic project of renovation was set in motion. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc designed the spire that culminated at 96 meters (315 feet) above ground and consolidated the wooden framework under the roof. His intention was to preserve this 600-year-old achievement, often called “the Forest” as it was made of more than a thousand and three hundred oak trees.

Following the publication of Victor Hugo’s novel, not only did the cathedral get a nice renovation, but the French also came up with the concept of historical sites or heritage, known as a the remembering and the preservation of old monuments like Notre-Dame for their cultural heritage. This concept also helped the French people emancipate and feel as if they were all part of a broader French nation than they were a few years back, when they had to choose between answering to the clergy or loving a monarch.

Victor Hugo wrote in his own words that “the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society” and I think this reflects how every single French person feels today towards Notre-Dame, regardless of their personal beliefs or affiliations, be they political, religious, or spiritual. We all lost a part of our memory and of our common history. In more recent years, the cathedral had become a national symbol of mourning and tribute to the dead. Notre-Dame was spontaneously chosen as the right place to host the tribute ceremony for the Paris attacks in November 2015.

By now you would have probably guessed that I am emotionally attached to the cathedral, as are most of the French people I know. The fire wasn’t even out yet when the country began focusing on the reconstruction of Notre-Dame.

The fire wasn’t even out yet when the country began focusing on the reconstruction of Notre-Dame.

In only a few days, more than $700 million was offered by the three richest families in France for the cathedral’s reconstruction. Right after the news broke, people started criticizing these donations and called it a communication strategy from those powerful families and the multinational corporations they own. The critics’ main argument is that it is outrageous that while the rich are willing to give millions for the rebuilding of a material object, hundreds of innocents are dying around the world daily because of wars or lack of access to good medical care and first necessities like water and electricity.

I want to emphasize that I strongly agree with the argument made that the financial resources of the ‘North’ could easily help people in need. I would love to see one day an international fundraiser for any non-profit humanitarian organization getting millions from one single contributor. Unfortunately, this is out of our control. Reconstructing Notre-Dame is something we must achieve and we should not be arguing about where the money comes from. These rich contributors earned the right to give their money to whichever cause they see fit their personal beliefs. It is also worth mentioning that French people have a strong history of criticism and had it not been opened to private donations, Notre-Dame would have been reconstructed with public funding directly coming from French taxpayers’ money. You can be assured that had that been the case we would have seen a multitude of criticism from those exact same people.

I don’t believe that the real issue is the source of the money but rather the way in which people receive information. I want to raise my voice against the media and especially the French media for their coverage of international news. While I understand the emotion surrounding the fire of Notre-Dame as well as the need to rebuild it, I am deeply shocked that they would rather talk about this topic 24/7 than cover the barbaric attacks that left Sri Lanka with more than 350 dead and 500 injured just a few days after the fire.

We have to set an example. Only after doing so will we be able to criticize people not donating money to a good cause. While this is another discussion, I believe we, as French, as citizens from the country once called the “country of enlightenment and human rights” owe it to the rest of the world to reshape our thinking and our media so that we efficiently capture what is really going on in the world.

Thomas Klauck is a junior studying economics at Syracuse University.