Can Notre Dame cathedral be destroyed twice — the first time by fire, the second by architects? And will the arrogance of an unpopular president trying for wokeness change the Paris skyline forever?
Last week, all of France was in shock, tears and prayer, as the most famous and beloved church in the world was engulfed by hundred-foot flames. We watched as the cathedral’s delicate spire turned white-red and finally collapsed as night fell.
It was our 9/11. The fire raged for most of the night at the very heart of the huge darkened church, like some demonic smelter. Atheists, believers — we were all devastated.
That evening, our embattled president, Emmanuel Macron, who for months has seen his poll numbers sink like a stone, found the right words. He came to the cathedral and proclaimed that Notre Dame belonged to all the French, Catholics and others, and to world civilization. He saluted the bravery of the firefighters, and he vowed to start rebuilding.
His simple, heartfelt words connected with a nation in anguish. It was a welcome change. In the past three months, Macron has been giving interminable speeches across the country, Fidel Castro-like, for a total of 92 hours, in the Great Debate, a series of carefully staged (and televised) town-hall meetings supposed to end the standoff with France’s Yellow Vest “deplorables.” He sounded like a university lecturer talking down to first-year students, and the French weren’t terribly impressed.
But now, like a family, a nation in sorrow was glad to unite behind him.
It didn’t last long. On Tuesday night, the president incautiously stated that a “more beautiful” cathedral would be rebuilt “in five years,” to general incredulity. More beautiful than what? And had Macron turned structural engineer overnight?
Experts have warned that the effect of the fire’s heat — and the floods of water from 16 fire hoses continuously on from 7 at night to dawn, on centuries-old stone and fragile remaining girders — could only be truly known after a cooling off of several days or weeks.
Stone masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, carvers, glass makers and sculptors must be found and assembled, as they were when the great cathedrals of Europe were built, subsuming their individuality to the greater glory of God.
Every decision must follow careful studies, both historical and technical. The main restoration of Reims Cathedral after intensive shelling during World War I lasted more than 20 years. Some of it is still ongoing today.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe then gave a news conference to announce an “international architectural contest.” The winner would design a new spire to replace the fallen one, carefully reconstructed between 1843 and 1859 by the great architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to repair the destruction wrought 50 years earlier by the French Revolution.
And to make plain the presidential intentions, the Élysée Palace released a statement a couple of hours later: “Since the spire wasn’t part of the original cathedral, the president of the republic hopes there will be some reflection, and a contemporary architectural gesture might be envisaged.”
Preposterous “concept drawings” appeared almost immediately on social media. A twisted concrete spire in pure Dubai style. A transparent roof with plate-glass windows, more suited to an elevated railroad station. And worse.
Fury ensued. We French wanted our cathedral back, not some megalomaniac statement by a publicity-hungry architect eager to make his mark on Notre Dame.
Macron, a Gen X-Millenial hybrid with delusions of competence, isn’t an art historian any more than he’s an engineer. Carelessly dismissing Viollet-le-Duc — a medieval architectural expert, who’d pored over every available engraving, painting and illuminated religious manuscript to reproduce the original 1250 spire, under the watchful eye of the Historical Monuments Committee of the time — is typical of the contempt for humble effort often found in our ruling technocrats.
Our president campaigned “beyond the Right and the Left” to invent “a new style of politics.” He is a wannabe woke Davos Man. Tradition and history matter far less to him than politically correct modernity. He can’t help looking down on those citizens who, unironically (a cardinal sin among the cool set) cling to their churches and stained-glass windows.
The answer came clearly in two polls: 70 percent of the French people want Notre Dame rebuilt exactly as it was on Palm Sunday, before the fire.
If Emmanuel Macron decides to forge ahead nevertheless, he will find that Yellow Vests can be worn in peace, but with iron determination, by lovers of our old churches, spires and traditions.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French writer and columnist for London’s Telegraph.