France thought Notre Dame would always be there

The cathedral is a totemic symbol of French identity. As it burned, the end felt perilously close. 

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Last night, France watched helplessly as Notre Dame Cathedral burned. The fire, which is believed to have started accidentally in the 800-year-old wooden structure, spread quickly to the roof, engulfing the medieval landmark in a huge blaze. Surprise, astonishment and horror spread quickly among crowds of Parisians and tourists who united on the banks of the Seine to witness the destruction of a totemic part of French, and European, history.

On social media, people listed what might be lost – the stained glass windows, the artwork, the organ – and what would already certainly be destroyed – the wooden structure, called the “forest” because of the vast number of trees its construction required, had no chance of survival. The organ has reportedly survived – and, miraculously, the stained glass rose windows – but the sight of the spire crumbling into flames below was catastrophic. As the air in Paris’ Ile de la Cité filled with smoke and darkness fell, the grey stones of Notre Dame were illuminated by dancing shadows of the fire eating the cathedral from the inside.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who cancelled a national TV address scheduled that evening and rushed to the cathedral site, said that “a part of us”, of France, was burning. It sounded grand, but his words rang true – few monuments embody French history, in its grandiose and dramatic complexity, like the cathedral Notre Dame.

Its first stone was set in 1163 and its last in 1345. The Revolutionaries turned it into a “temple of Reason” in 1793. It was here that Napoléon was coronated emperor in 1804. The belfries’ bells rang in 1944 to announce the Liberation of Paris. The cathedral, which celebrated its 850th anniversary in 2013, is visited each year by more than 13 million people. To France’s Catholics, it is a place of worship, but as Macron acknowledged, “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events”. A popular French saying to convey impatience, “I am not going to wait for 107 years”, derives from the time it took to build Notre Dame.

To many non-religious people in France and beyond, the cathedral also symbolises French values of equality and fraternity, as depicted in the novel by literary giant Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). It hurts to read the book again and realise that Hugo had foreseen the catastrophe, writing in the story about “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”. The cathedral is a symbol of tolerance in Hugo’s work, welcoming the poor, the disabled, the foreigners and illegal migrants chased by an inhumane police.

Notre Dame meant different things to people, yet its significance was universal. Disney’s Hunchback adaptation (1996) reintroduced Hugo’s masterpiece to an international audience, but as a child it was through a French musical released about the same time, in 1998, that I discovered the historic building. Aged six, I would sing that the “time of cathedrals” had come: “The world entered in a new millenium / Men wanted to touch the stars / Engrave history in stone and glass”, the song went on. And as a newly arrived student in vast and lonely Paris, its sight was one of the very few that filled me with joy. Parisians know no better way to enjoy a summer evening than sipping wine on the banks of the Seine, overlooking the cathedral.

This morning, the parvis of Notre Dame was covered in ashes, but soon there will be more cheap bottles of wine opened on its banks. “We will rebuild it together”, pledged Macron. Some of France’s richest citizens were quick to announce hundreds of thousands of euros of donations to help the reconstruction – a welcome gesture, even if some noted that these are the same people who embezzle billions each year and prevent the French state from properly renovating historic buildings due to its dwindling budget.

There was a moment last night when firefighters said they could not be sure the fire would be stopped in time to save the cathedral's towers. That was when it hit me that the whole thing could collapse. I had until then held the hope that only the wood would burn, which on its own was a terrible loss, but that the stones would stand. Imagining it crumble brought tears to my eyes and, I am sure, thousands of others. The French had thought Notre Dame would always be there; it was built to see millennia, to stand until the end of time. Thankfully, the towers survived the blaze – but for a moment the end felt perilously close.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.