In emotional terms, the fire that destroyed Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris can be described as the 9/11 of France. No matter what the cause may turn out to be. Like New York, which even in periods of war was supposed to be immune from foreign attacks, Paris was supposed to be spared irretrievable catastrophes, either civilian or military.
That ended for New York in 2001. The last time the capital of France suffered wide range destruction was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and 1871 and its revolutionary sequel, the Commune of Paris, which scorched the Royal Palace of Tuileries and of City Hall.
In 1918, the last year of World War I, German artillery did find its mark in Paris, most notably in the Marais district. Unlike London, Berlin, Warsaw, or Florence, Paris “did not burn” during World War II. The result was that most Parisians indulged throughout the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st in the fallacy that their city was too beautiful, too “historical,” too much a part of Unesco’s World Heritage, to be struck.
Time and again, Parisians were reminded that things could go the other way, after all. There were riots, terrorist attacks, bombings. But Paris itself seemed to be immortal. People started to wake up for real after the Islamist killing spree of November 2015, at the Bataclan theatre and other places. More recently, there was a succession of frightening scenes in the wake of the recent Yellow Vests’ protest: the Arch of Triumph defaced, the Champs-Elysées’ shops and restaurants torched. And now, Notre-Dame was aflame.
From my window, I could see a pillar of black and reddish smoke rising above the roofs, a helicopter circling above the fire. The iron spire, a 19th century addition to the Gothic church, collapsed all of sudden — evincing gasps of horror not only in Paris but around the world. Much like the moment when Twin Towers of the World Trade Center suddenly came down. Today the whole of France, the whole world trembled in horror as the scale of what was happening sunk in.
Even if the fire was accidental (it may have started at a place where renovation work was in progress), it came as the coda to an ominous winter. And one could not entirely discard, either, the possibility of a terrorist arson: many anti-Christian incidents have been reported recently, including the vandalization of churches, cemeteries, or shrines; and there were repeated threats from jihadist groups to do “something big” in Paris again, preferably against an emblematic building.
No wonder President Macron postponed the television speech to the nation he was supposed to have delivered this very evening, and, along with his wife, Brigitte, and Prime Minister Philippe, Mr. Macron came instead as near to the cathedral as he could get.
One doesn’t have to be Catholic, or Christian, or even religious to be devastated by the destruction of Notre-Dame. The nine hundred years old cathedral is the heart of France: it stands on City Island, between the Seine’s two channels, a place it shares with Palace of Justice (the first Royal Palace in the Middle Ages); and all mileage in the country symbolically starts at “kilomètre zéro,” just in front of the cathedral.
While the Kings were crowned in Reims by the local archbishop, Napoleon crowned himself at Notre-Dame, in front of Pope Pius VI. Notre-Dame is the first place in Paris de Gaulle visited in 1944 when the capital was liberated from the Germans; it is from Notre-Dame that De Gaulle walked across the city to the Arch of Triumph. It is hard to imagine France without Notre Dame. Let the rebuilding begin.
Reproduction autorisée avec la mention suivante : © Michel Gurfinkiel & The New York Sun