The heart of the “grande nation” began to weep as the French witnessed the cradle of their history burning in the Notre-Dame fire in Paris. One could think that such a national tragedy would unite the French in their sorrow, as during the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. Yet some French citizens took this tragic occasion to complain, debate and polemicise. These topics would dominate the TV sets and enrich the terraces of the cafés for weeks to come. In my hometown, the burning Notre-Dame had a dark symbolic significance. It was a remainder of one of France’s darkest hours, when the Reims Cathedral was bombed and burned under artillery fire in the fall of 1914 in the midst of World War I.
This cruel reminder of the past and the emotion caused by it reveals France’s monuments and culture policy; proving that the French have indeed a very special bond to their history, particularly to their monuments. Francophiles would see in this a cultivated people fascinated by their history and heritage, one of the richest in the world.
However, the sad truth is that French monuments are not faring well and a lot of them are in fact in danger of tumbling down. A few months ago, the government launched a lottery with the help of Stephane Bern, a commonly-televised national history guru, to finance a small part of France’s lesser known “endangered monuments.”
Sometimes nicknamed “the country of the 36,000 church bells”, France’s churches and many other historic “old stone monuments” – especially in rural and non-touristic areas – are in a state of despair and often rely on private generosity or foreign capital for survival. The last decades’ budget cuts have hit rural areas of France substantially, creating a lack of public funds for monuments.
Consequently, monuments, churches, chateaus and other treasures of human civilisation in danger of disappearance all around the country and away from media and touristic attention are crumbling.
Beyond this, the Notre-Dame Fire has also resulted in a series of fake news and conspiracy theories circulating online concerning the causes, origins and nature of the fire. This is a reminder that, despite the media-celebrated victory of Macron as a knight in shining armour against the National Front at the 2017 presidential election, populism and demagogy prosper in France. Far from being an exception, not only French but European progressivism on the whole remains in danger.
Another cause for widespread controversy after the Notre-Dame fire was how to finance its reconstruction. Immediately after, some of France’s billionaire families such as the Pinault and Arnault families, as well as corporations donated over 600 million euros. This sparked envy and debate over the (in)decency of these sums that could be spent in other fields in France.
This happened in a time where the country hasn’t overcome its yellow vest crisis, sparked and fuelled by rising inequality and lack of purchasing power. These heated arguments from the left relaunched the eternal media debate over a supposedly negative attitude of the French against success, enrichment and triumphant global economic liberalism.
These debates were fed by the 60% tax abatement granted by French law to any sum of private donations directed to monuments and culture, revealing once again the split in French society. The winners of globalisation, in this case philanthropist families and dynamic urban and touristic centres, are opposed to the losers of globalisation – the yellow vests in rural France (and its crumbling monuments). This bleak picture mirrors France’s position in the world and the harsh reality of social decline in a globalised world.
But there are many reasons for hope: France remains as a great country with hard and soft power attributes of world range, a top-class quality of life, a welfare state and a relatively good wealth distribution. A retreat to move towards the forgotten people of globalisation and more considerate policies to include rural areas could close the gaps exacerbated by the Notre-Dame fire debates.
What the Notre-Dame debates show is that France is still uncomfortable with its heterogeneous in-between self-identity; it is searching to find the balance between its outward-looking entrepreneurial spirit, versus its inward-looking rural base. As a source of inspiration, the Reims Cathedral can be seen as a crowning place of the failed overthrown French monarchy as it burnt to ashes during World War I. Its 15th century roof was replaced by a groundbreaking concrete structure, financed by American capital and is now the centre of a dynamic and historic wine region.
The reconstruction of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral will generate unavoidable and eternal debates around the great and peculiar French presidential tradition of building gigantic landmarks in Paris. Beyond this, the reconstruction will showcase some of France’s best features and its worst struggles: highly skilled artisanship, the challenge to find national unity, a heterogeneous and divided society, its ambiguous historic consciousness, its desire to move forward and to cover up everything with the French art of heated controversy.