(Written by Adam Nossiter)
President Emmanuel Macron asked French citizens Tuesday night to come together in the aftermath of the calamitous fire at Notre Dame Cathedral and to move beyond the divisions that have wrenched the country during months of violent street protests.
Macron, who has faced a virtual uprising against his pro-business government, sought to rally a country still devastated by the fire and turn the profound, yet undoubtedly fleeting, moment of national mourning and unity to his advantage.
Like his predecessor, François Hollande, who steered France through two terrorist attacks, Macron suggested that politics be forgotten in the aftermath of the fire and called attention to the grand national rebuilding project — vowing to restore the gargantuan Gothic gem in a mere five years.
“So yes, we will rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral, more beautiful than ever, and I want this to be finished in five years,” Macron said. “We can do it, and we will mobilize to do so.”
After an inspection Tuesday, with firefighters still searching for smoldering embers, French authorities declared the 850-year-old cathedral structurally sound, if wounded by three troubling “holes” in the sweeping vaulted ceiling.
How the fire started remains under intensive investigation, though authorities were treating the disaster as an accident, focusing on workers who were carrying out another round of nearly constant renovations at the scaffolding-shrouded site.
Wealthy benefactors — including the French energy company Total, L’Oréal and the family of Bernard Arnault , the richest man in France — quickly pledged hundreds of millions toward restoration of what, even in its charred state, remained a national and global treasure.
None of the simmering questions and recriminations about whether the landmark was properly fitted with fire-safety measures — the authorities had decided against sprinklers amid the timbers under the roof where the blaze spread — have yet been turned on Macron.
Macron, who went to the site even as it still burned Monday evening, has presented himself as the image of control and authority. The tragedy may even offer a fillip of support to a president who polled low even before the months of violent “yellow vest” protests erupted late last year. The question is for how long.
“I believe very deeply that it is up to us to transform this catastrophe into a moment to become — while reflecting deeply on what we have been, and what we should be — better than what we are,” the president said in a nationally televised address, deploying the typically abstract language that has hurt him politically.
“It is up to us now to rediscover the thread of our national project — what made us, what unites us,” Macron said.
Backing Macron’s words, politics indeed stopped Tuesday, with the political parties declaring a truce as though it were wartime and the country had been attacked.
One after another, on the left, right and centre, the parties cancelled their meetings, their attacks on Macron and their campaigning for the European elections.
Macron himself shelved a much-anticipated speech he was supposed to give Monday night outlining his analysis of what his government called the Great National Debate — three months in which citizens voiced their grievances, mostly over taxes.
The president was all set to announce measures to meet these grievances and calm the yellow vests — lower taxes, higher pensions, an opening up of institutions.
But then the fire struck, the speech was cancelled and Macron himself joined the truce declared by the other political parties.
But this appeared to have little to do with Macron, and much to do with the national grief over Notre Dame.
“We’re all living this moment, collectively, as a moment of mourning,” said a leader of the centre-right Republican Party, François-Xavier Bellamy, on the French television channel LCI on Tuesday.
The truce is likely to be only temporary, in the estimation of analysts.
The protests revealed such high levels of discontent, and of “fragmentation” in the “French archipelago,” as the leading pollster Jérôme Fourquet put it in an influential recent book on French disunity, that whatever boost the president gets is likely to be short-lived.
“He wants to make the national reconstruction project a Macron project,” Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist, said after listening to Macron’s speech. “He wants to make it his project. It’s a project for France that he wants to put himself at the head of: ‘I’m the one who will give you back your cathedral.’”
But Grunberg was skeptical that the mission would take hold with a French public that remains deeply skeptical of Macron, a youthful former investment banker who captured the presidency two years ago as France’s political party system collapsed around him.
“It’s very rare for a chief of state to have a great national project around which everybody can rally,” Grunberg said. “Since the beginning, I’ve been struck by how difficult it has been for him to enlarge his majority,” which received only 24 percent in the first round of voting in 2017, he added.
Macron is now above that in the polls, but not by much, even after undertaking an extended speaking tour of France.
Other reactions suggested that the moment of national unity may already be waning.
“It seems to me that five years to reconstruct a cathedral is a little bit short; five years to have to put up with Emmanuel Macron’s speeches is a bit long,” said Manuel Bompard, a leader of the leftist party France Insoumise, or France Unbowed.
Macron sought to place the national tragedy of Notre Dame’s near destruction in the context of the great sweep of French history, as he often does, a habit intended to reassure citizens of his long-term vision for the nation.
“In the course of our history, we’ve built cities, ports, churches,” Macron said. “Many have burned or were destroyed in wars, revolutions or by man’s mistakes. Each time, each time, we’ve rebuilt them.”
“The fire at Notre Dame reminds us that our history doesn’t end, doesn’t end,” he added.
But the grief that the French were experiencing in the wake of the fire was much more personal than Macron’s abstractions suggested.
On Tuesday night, hundreds congregated for song and prayers in the Place Saint Michel, opposite Notre Dame. During the day, hundreds more had massed at the bridge leading on to the church plaza.
On Monday night, watching the flames in horror from the river bank, many were in tears, as if they had been struck personally by the disaster.
“It’s a thousand years of memory that’s going,” said Marlene Ruat, a 34-year-old hospital worker. “It’s causing me a lot of pain,” she said. “You can see here,” she said, pointing at the crowd. “Everybody is quiet.”
For others, the symbolism of the destruction, and what it said about the current condition of France, and its political and economic management of the balance between its glorious but sometimes burdensome history and the need to renew and move forward, was inescapable.
“There have been three cases like this in 10 years,” said Pierre Housieaux, the president of the Paris-Historique historic preservation society, citing other disastrous fires at historic monuments.
“We’re seeing monuments ravaged by fires that are always tied to renovation work,” he said, “and we still haven’t taken the measure of things.”