The horrible fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, the magnificent 800-year-old structure serving as a beautiful symbol of western civilization, is still smoldering. Yet there exists those who argue it shouldn’t be rebuilt to its original form, because of the large Muslim population now residing in France.
And, of course, anyone who notices this large Muslim population is immediately an Islamophobe or a member of the far-right… [How Should France Rebuild Notre Dame?: Much of the structure survived the blaze — but as rebuilding efforts move forward, the country will be left with a big question: What does the cathedral mean to 21st-century France?, Rolling Stone, April 16, 2019]:
Over the course of the past few centuries, the cathedral has played a role in major historical events, from the coronation of kings to the crowning of Napoleon to the requiem mass of President Charles de Gaulle. And Notre Dame has served as a symbol of not just French historical identity, but Catholicism in general. “It has a double meaning,” says Jean-Robert Armogathe, a French Catholic priest and historian who served as the chaplain at Notre Dame from 1980 to 1985. “It has been the center of Catholic life and of France for 800 years.” As Armogathe points out, it is also quite literally the center of Paris: a gold star outside the cathedral marks Point Zero, the supposed center of the city.
But for some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.
Despite politicians on both sides of the French political spectrum discouraging people from trying to politicize the Notre Dame fire, it would be a mistake to view the building as little more than a Paris tourist attraction, says John Harwood, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s literally a political monument. All cathedrals are,” he says. For centuries, the cathedral was the seat of the bishop of the Catholic Church at a time when there was virtually no distinction between church and state. “It was the center and seat of political power not just in Paris, but in France,” he says. “And that remained the case even after the French Revolution and through successive revolutions and political power and regimes.”
Notre Dame acquired even more overtly nationalist symbolism following its renovation in the Nineteenth century by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who is widely considered the godfather of modern historical architectural restoration. Viollet-le-Duc sought to restore the edifice’s Gothic past, a style that was largely unpopular at the time; his restoration that accounts for the western facade, the (now-destroyed) spire, as well as modifications to the choir and the additions of gothic stained glass-windows.
What it means to be “French,” however, has obviously changed a great deal over the past few centuries. While France is still predominantly Christian, the number of practicing Catholics has fallen year after year, from 64% in 2010 to 56% in 2012, according to one census figure. The number of Muslims in France is also growing, comprising more than 5% of the population (up from 3% in 2006) giving rise to rampant Islamophobia and the birth of far-right extremist parties like the National Front, headed by extremist Marine Le Pen. A profound income gap has also led to the explosion of protests from so-called “yellow vests,” a movement primarily made up of lower-middle-class and middle-class youth on the left who have vandalized many similarly historically significant French monuments (and whose latest actions Macron was expected to comment on in a scheduled press conference, which was postponed when Notre Dame started burning). In fact, in the hours following the fire, many started blaming the accident on the yellow vests; there was also a flurry of Islamophobic posts on social media attributing the fire to Muslim extremist terrorists, despite the fact that all evidence currently indicates that the blaze was accidental.
Despite the lip service many French people and politicians have given to the symbolic significance of Notre Dame in the hours following the fire, Birignani says that as France has changed, so too has Notre Dame lost some of its weight as a totem of national identity, and is skeptical of some of the effusive rhetoric that has been borne from the flames. Now that the world has rallied in support of the rebuilding of the cathedral, however, and donations have started pouring in from all over the world, there’s likely to be renewed interest around the cathedral as an emblem of French history and culture. For some, this is deeply concerning. “One of the things that worries me about this event is that in a country that is deeply divided right now like France is and having this assumption of [Notre Dame] serving as a bedrock institution, it creates a hole and you have to imagine what it has to become again and who does the imagining, and that is a really loaded question,” says Harwood.
Although Macron and donors like Pinault have emphasized that the cathedral should be rebuilt as close to the original as possible, some architectural historians like Brigniani believe that would be complicated, given the many stages of the cathedral’s evolution. “The question becomes, which Notre Dame are you actually rebuilding?,” he says. Harwood, too, believes that it would be a mistake to try to recreate the edifice as it once stood, as LeDuc did more than 150 years ago. Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making. “The idea that you can recreate the building is naive. It is to repeat past errors, category errors of thought, and one has to imagine that if anything is done to the building it has to be an expression of what we want — the Catholics of France, the French people — want. What is an expression of who we are now? What does it represent, who is it for?,” he says.
Hamburger, however, dismisses this idea as “preposterous.” Now that the full extent of the damage is being reckoned with — and is less than many initially feared — he sees no reason to not try to rebuild and preserve one of the few remaining wonders of medieval architecture. “It’s not as if in rebuilding the church one is necessarily building a monument to the glorification of medieval catholicism and aristocracy. It’s simply the case that the building has witnessed the entire history of France as a modern nation,” he says. “[You] can’t just erase history. It’s there, and it has to be dealt with critically.”
Who are we now? What does it represent, who is it for?
Not the French people. Not Catholics. Not white people. They are being replaced, with the Notre Dame Cathedral a relic of western civilization being supplanted by France’s vibrant, multicultural future.
Pray for the Notre Dame Cathedral. Pray for the French people. Pray for our civilization.