On Notre Dame and the state of the nation

We had planned to write something else this week, but the appalling fire at Notre Dame has dominated French life. We would like to offer you the consensus opinion in the bars and churches of the region but our sample size is a bit more limited; nevertheless, we have had some conversations and kept an eye on the French and international press. It’s clearly been a deeply felt and shocking event across the nation and it has raised a number of issues.

Something that we are becoming increasingly aware of is the French sensitivity, bordering on a neurosis, about religion and religious buildings. In theory, there is a rigorously defined gap between the sacred and the secular. This goes back to the French Revolution – when the church was very definitely on the losing side – and was heightened by a formal legal separation of church and state in 1905. Yet Notre Dame is important in both areas of life. If you ignore the far too recent Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame dominates a Parisian skyline mercifully free from skyscrapers.

Notre Dame from one of the bridges over the Seine

In a similar way it dominates French history, having played an important role for over 800 years in almost every event that has shaped the nation. It has seen moments of transformation: the crowning of Kings and emperors, the celebrations of the end of wars, the funerals that have closed eras. Yet it has also acted as some astonishing point of stability. Geographically, it is an island in the middle of the flowing river Seine; historically and socially it has been a fixed point in the middle of a flowing and turbulent history. Whatever happened – and in France a lot has happened – Notre Dame has always been there. So, its burning has been seen by many as the shaking of foundations. In fact, when Chris suggested to one thoughtful French person that Notre Dame played a similar role to the British monarchy in the UK in offering stability there was only agreement. Given that the nation is already in the middle of a very major upheaval – the angry and widespread gilet jaunes protests having been occurring regularly now for nearly six months – this dramatically visible fire has come as a deep body blow.

Yet at the same time Notre Dame is not just a historic monument but also a religious institution. Even if, bizarrely, it is been owned and maintained by an explicitly secular state for over a century, it is still the heart of the Catholicism in France. And Roman Catholicism is increasingly the faith that people don’t belong to, although their mother or grandma might. Actually, until Monday’s dreadful events, most of the headlines in the press about Catholicism concerned the slow but relentless legal procedures against historical child abuse in France.

We attended an ecumenical service in Notre Dame at the start of the COP21 conference in December 2015

Given this curious double role of Notre Dame that it was interesting to listen to what M. Macron said at the scene on Monday night. Occasionally inclined to say the wrong thing when he speaks off-the-cuff, the president was here careful and his words were well measured. Evoking the long history and weight of heritage associated with the cathedral and its central role in French culture he studiously avoided anything that could be associated with a religious sentiment and carefully offered his sympathies to Catholics without anyway identifying with them. He ended with a very presidential appeal: “We will rebuild Notre Dame because that is what the French expect, because that is what our history deserves, because it is our deep destiny.” It would be interesting to unpack what the idea of ‘destiny’ really means, but it was a good speech.

Yet the fire at Notre Dame has highlighted the hole at the heart of French culture. The problem is that while the secularism of la laïcité is resolutely defended, it generates no enthusiasm and arouses no affection. The result is that while the Catholic faith is widely rejected (almost everyone we talked to about Notre Dame has uttered the phrase ‘of course I’m not a Catholic but…’) there seems to be a lingering and uncritical nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when priests and moral certainty reigned in the land and France knew what she was. The loss of Catholicism as the focus of belief and morality has left a faith-shaped void in the heart of France. It was that wisest of Frenchmen, Blaise Pascal, who spoke of the God-shaped gap in the human heart that nothing but God can fill. He might have been prophetically speaking of modern France.

One picture has been on almost every front page: in the middle of the dark charred gloom of the interior stands erect and gleaming the great bronze cross. For Christian publicity at Easter it’s been an astonishing success: it’s a pity it cost so much to achieve it.

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