This spring, the burning of Notre-Dame in Paris aroused a universal emotional response. The French, ordinarily divided and irreligious, found themselves united in grief. Global condolences translated into considerable donations, recalling oil titan John D. Rockefeller’s financed reconstruction of the destroyed Reims cathedral after World War I. Notre-Dame’s fire occurred in peacetime; the cathedral’s flames, both frightful and mesmerizing, displayed the fragility of an ancient Western jewel. Its destruction touched humanity: everyone knows Notre-Dame, either through visits or images. The cathedral’s past is inextricable from that of France and Europe.
I once attended Notre-Dame’s Christmas midnight mass with my wife, just one night before our first child’s birth. Standing beneath the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling, I realized that this structure was more than stones: it was laced with faith, literature, and music—both somber and light. Few monuments of the world, perhaps Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome or Mecca’s Grand Mosque, carry in them so many centuries, so much history and passion. Through images of an engulfed Notre-Dame, shared widely on social media, we rediscovered how much—to the French mind—the cathedral embodied the nation.
It took Notre-Dame’s near-destruction for the cathedral to reveal itself as a national symbol. Though we live in an era of globalization and hyper-individualism, the emotions generated by the fire proved that the nation, as a concept and lived reality, still has meaning. The cathedral belongs to French citizens’ symbolic heritage; it contributes to their identity and rootedness. The risk of losing this masterpiece reminded the French of its irreplaceable cultural importance.
France remains secular—only 5 percent of French Catholics regularly attend mass. But the French are still shaped by Catholicism’s social and spiritual forms—its traditions more than its faith—and by the Church’s temporal and spiritual hierarchy. The French continue to observe the sacramental rites of baptism, marriage, and funerals, for example, and they rely on the Church’s remaining clergy to practice these enduring rituals. Notre-Dame—possessing a kind of mineral theology, a Deo Gratias in cut stone—is thus the perfect representation of what it means to be eternally French. This reality sheds light on the complexities of being French in a time of great migrations. The new Frenchman—recently arrived from Africa or Asia—is typically Muslim or Buddhist, and so has no historical or cultural connection to the cathedral. For immigrants, it’s difficult to become fully French; to newcomers, Notre-Dame is a cultural fixture, like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, not an internalized passion.
French conservative pundits and politicians believe that the Notre-Dame fire has inspired a kind of national reconstruction. Yet conflicts between traditionalists and modernists have already broken out surrounding reconstruction. President Emmanuel Macron promises the cathedral’s rehabilitation within five years, an acknowledgment that the project will not result in a single reconstitution, which many conservatives hoped for. New materials—metal and concrete—will likely substitute for the oak beams. The structure will be filled with the most up-to-date smoke detectors and other modern equipment.
Add to this controversy another major disagreement, concerning financing. A few wealthy French families, like the owners of Louis Vuitton, L’Oréal, and Gucci, made massive donations in a country where philanthropy is nearly unknown. Their contributions, rather than being welcomed by the public, provoked indignation. The French were largely unaware of the donors’ vast wealth and wondered why they had never previously supported social-welfare causes. As a result, French public opinion has turned against philanthropy in general. After learning of this grandiose generosity, many individuals, small-business owners, and city councils canceled their own donations.
This reaction follows French tradition: the French would prefer that wealthy people and profitable companies pay higher taxes and that the government rebuild Notre-Dame. Americans, meanwhile, are still welcome to help. They always have—for decades, American donors have supported Chartres Cathedral, Versailles, and Fontainebleau. A New York–based organization, Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, remains active. The French don’t object to Americans’ philanthropic ways. At the end of the day, our national quarrel over reconstruction and philanthropy will take the place of a sacred union. But quarreling—whether over the reconstruction of beams or over who gives what to whom—is also part of what makes us French.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images