PARIS: More than a church went up in flames in the Parisian fire this past Monday (Apr 16) night, which destroyed much of the interior of the cathedral Notre-Dame, though it left the stone facade seemingly intact.
Author Ken Follett called medieval cathedrals in Europe “the pillars of the Earth”. Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”, built between the 12th and the 14th centuries on the Ile de la Cité, the larger of the two islands in the river Seine in the heart of Paris, counted undoubtedly among them in its incomparable Gothic splendor.
But the fire has ripped the heart out of the building. The body of the church from the transept in the middle up to the two towers and down to the choir has been burned, leaving only the bare side walls standing.
What 800 years of history with wars, revolutions and natural calamities have not done was destroyed within a couple of hours by a raging fire, likely set off by workmen renovating the exterior of the roof.
HOPE FOR REBUILDING
Yet a first look in the morning after the fire, with the last ambers barely extinct, seemed to allay one's worst fears of seeing a building in ruins.
The frontal view - though distant due to the police barricades blocking off half of the island, including the famous Cathedral Square Parvis de Notre-Dame, a familiar sight to any and all Paris tourists - is reassuring.
Both famous clock towers, known to millions around the world as the haunts of the “Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, are still standing, barely blackened.
But it was quite another sight however from the back of the cathedral. The quays of the smaller sister island Ile St Louis, immediately upstream from Ile de la Cité and the main bridge linking it to the Left Bank, offer a full picture of the disaster.
The entirely wooden roof of the church is totally gone, the metallic scaffolding surrounding it for the said renovation blackened, bent and partly collapsed.
The sparkling, rose shaped stained-glass windows on both ends of the transept, even though looking intact from a distance, appear dark and blind.
No wonder then that dozens of TV transmission vans are parked there and thousands of spectators mingle. Europe, if not the world, seemed to have skipped a heart beat in the face of seeing such a symbol almost disappear.
FRANCE MOVING ON
The fire broke out an hour before a scheduled major speech by French President Emmanuel Macron, which was supposed to have detailed the government’s answer to public dissatisfaction, spearheaded by the Yellow Vest movement.
When Macron cancelled his speech due to the unfolding disaster at Notre-Dame, some speculated that the calamity’s timing did suspiciously help Macron to switch to his favorite role of “pater patriae” (father of the country) in a dark hour for the nation.
The Paris Fire Brigade did, according to experts in the media, a very credible job of being able to save the towers and most stone walls. They also evacuated some priceless treasures from the inside the blazing building.
THE PICTURE THAT WENT AROUND THE WORLD
One picture that went around the world was the church’s spire, high over the transept falling in flames – the medieval one having been brought down by the French revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century, the burnt one actually being a replica built in the 19th century.
Still, a symbol was crashing down.
Macron’s France appeared for many to be the main bastion of European resolve when he first came to power, especially with Angela Merkel weakened and on her way out, Britain’s self-inflicted wound with Brexit, the national-populists taking over in Eastern Europe and surging in Northern Europe.
Then came the Yellow Vests, devastating the iconic Champs Elysées, scaring away tourists from all over the world with a seemingly archaic France.
And now with Notre-Dame charred and broken, how can anybody still rely on the enduring values of Europe, enshrined in its cultural heritage and its past global influence?
If the Notre Dame fire leads to a short-lived national consensus, coupled with rallying around the chief, it could actually help the internationalist, pro-European elements in French politics, concentrated in the person of Macron and his La République en Marche party, and beyond.
The first such signs are appearing in France. Almost a billion Euros was pledged on the first day of the international campaign to rebuild Notre Dame in all its past glory.
A big part of this generosity came from French multinationals and rich individuals. But a considerable sum also through small donations from “the people”. They are heeding Macron’s call.
Will they follow him, in France and beyond in his call for European nationalism? The elections to the European parliament at the end of May will be a first test.
Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
This commentary first appeared in Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter.