The Burning of Notre Dame Is Not Just a Tragedy—It’s an Opportunity
A fire erupted on the cathedral's roof in Paris on April 15, 2019
I remember the moment when I understood the full significance of the Cathedral of Notre Dame: I was standing in a field 70 kilometers outside of Paris, marching alongside a group of mostly Muslim refugees, students of a Paris school of French language, culture and history where I was teaching at the time. We were taking part in an Easter pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Chartres, an ancient French tradition that dates back to before the cathedral was even built in 1193. This pilgrimage, which thousands of French citizens still make each year, begins at Notre Dame in Paris.
It was a strange sight: 30 refugees, mostly Muslim, trekking from one grand symbol of French Catholicism to another to mark the Holy Week. I asked one of the school’s directors what to make of this. He laughed. For us, he said, this march has nothing to do with religion. It is a way to welcome refugees into French history. He was right: In a country that is increasingly secular and increasingly diverse, the sight of refugees on this ancient Catholic route was proof that the France of the past could embrace the France of the present—and vice-versa. That was what Notre Dame represented.
Now, though, it seems that Notre Dame might become a symbol for precisely the opposite. Before the flames even ceased, journalists began bemoaning a loss of France’s past. “Layers of history seemed to evaporate,” wrote The New York Times. And then there was the symbolism of the flames for today’s France—fractured and divided by the Gilets Jaunes protests, flush with militant laïcité that often doubles for thinly disguised Islamophobia, wringing its hands over its collective identity. The fire forced President Emmanuel Macron to cancel his major speech on the protests, which had been billed as an attempt to heal the nation. A speech intended to stop Paris from burning each weekend, cancelled because Paris had found another way to burn. “The symbolism for the troubled country,” wrote the Times, “was hard to miss.”
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