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Notre-Dame: how a treasure survived against the odds, and why the tragedy made me love France even more

November 27, 2020

Last night I caught up with the recent documentary of the Notre-Dame fire. It was a fine piece of work, as gripping as any fictional thriller.

While some might make a trite comparison by describing the apocalyptic fire as France’s 9/11, it was far from that. 9/11 gave Americans a sense of victimhood and a desire for revenge that spawned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which in turn took many more lives than the original event. How would France have reacted if someone had flown a plane into the cathedral? I hate to think. But at least what happened on April 15th 2019 allowed a nation to show its better nature.

Nobody died in Notre-Dame. It was an accident, as far as anyone could tell. There was nobody to blame. And the reaction was an outpouring of grief rather than anger, not just in France but throughout the world.

The story began on a nice sunny day. As usual, crowds of visitors were in the cathedral. And then someone smelt something strange. An alarm went off. The fire had started in the roof. It was not immediately visible inside the nave. The only external evidence was a thin wisp of smoke coming from the top of the building. Before long, it was raging. Centuries-old oak beams were ablaze. The flames started to come through the roof and melt the lead cladding. The gargoyles dripped molten metal.

If there was a 9/11 moment, it was the fall of the spire, which evoked a collective groan from the thousands of onlookers. As the tragedy unfolded, captured on video from many angles – inside, outside and above the building – we heard from people who were involved.

The pompiers, (firefighters), many of whom spoke of efforts to overcome the fire in clipped tones as if describing a military operation, which in their minds it was. The priest under whose authority the cathedral came. The mayor, the contractor who was repairing the roof, the keepers of the priceless treasures contained within the church.

What impressed me was how much they all cared. There were two critical moments that showed this above others. The attempts of a team of pompiers who were prepared to risk their lives to recover the sacred relics that otherwise might have been lost. The curator insisted in going with them to help locate the safe where they were stored, despite the possibility that they might be incinerated or killed by falling masonry. It was as if they were searching for the soul of the cathedral.

And then there was the courage of the pompiers who risked their lives climbing the towers in order to prevent the fire reaching the bells. If the beams holding up the bells had collapsed, the entire edifice would probably have collapsed. It was a real-life cliff-hanger. The towers came within fifteen minutes of collapse. We had a ringside seat while the fire chiefs assessed the risk. And we sat in on the briefing to Macron, who gave the go-ahead, knowing that if the mission failed Notre-Dame would be lost, and the lives of many pompiers with it.

The documentary left me with several abiding impressions.

The esprit de corps of the pompiers, who, when the danger was over, returned to base and spent all night cleaning their equipment because they had an inspection the following day. The grief of the Monsignor, who kept asking God why, trying desperately to make sense of the tragedy. The onlookers, not gawpers, who watched in shocked silence, and then broke into song, as if to encourage the pompiers, even as the firefighters were struggling to quell the blaze.

And the fire, a ravenous beast that consumed all before it. It really did seem alive. I doubt if any fire has ever been captured on film as this one was. If it can be compared with anything, it was with COVID. Voracious, relentless and determined to find a way to destroy everything in its path.

Then there was Notre-Dame itself, filmed from within, with embers cascading from a hole in the roof. A beautiful but terrifying sight. Afterwards, beyond the piles of burnt-out debris littering the nave, the sight of the golden altar cross that survived, still shining brightly.

It was a close-run thing, but the cathedral still stands. Its sacred relics, rescued at the last moment, survived.

What Notre-Dame means to Parisians and to France as a nation might be hard for people who’ve never been to France to understand. It’s a source of pride, a symbol of national identity above all others. It’s the heart of France. Worth dying for in the minds of those who risked everything to save it.

What also struck me was the patriotism that radiated from all who spoke about that day. Not the inward-looking, uber-alles, narcissistic emotions that pass for patriotism in countries like Britain, the United States and other countries, but a sense, at least in the aftermath of a tragedy, of what such symbols of culture and identity mean both for a country and for civilisation as a whole.

It also left me wondering how we would have reacted to a conflagration in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps our most precious cultural monuments. Would people have risked their lives to save them? I hope so, and I hope we never have to find out.

This is not to denigrate our emergency services, but I wonder if they would have matched the discipline and dedication shown by their Parisian counterparts. The response to the Grenfell fire and the Arena bombings suggests that perhaps they wouldn’t. Not because of any unwillingness on the part of individuals to put their lives on the line, but because of organisational shortcomings and the morale-sapping effects of budget cuts.

The French state, and President Macron in particular, are under pressure at the moment because of their robust response to the recent Islamist attacks in the country. They have become hate objects in some parts of the Muslim world for the institutionalised laïcité policy that seeks to preserve the secular nature of the state. For a sensitive exploration of the subject, here’s an article worth reading.

Should France and its people once again come under attack, which seems almost inevitable, the response of the emergency services in Paris on that awful day gives one some confidence that again they won’t be found wanting.

But leaving politics to one side, the dignity and quiet pride of those who saved Notre-Dame reminds me of why I love France, and perhaps why so many of my compatriots choose to live there. France is not a perfect society. No matter the countless wars we’ve fought with the French in the past, that they want most of our fish, that they despise our cheeses and that Parisian waiters can’t stand us. I for one couldn’t ask for a better neighbour.

Long may that continue, for all the efforts of our politicians to fabricate divisions that needn’t exist.

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