Of fires, fates and fortunes
Fire," Don McLean wrote in "American Pie", "is the devil's only friend." It must have been so for Roman Emperor Nero: he anecdotally "fiddled while Rome burned" in 64 AD. His counterpart chief executive in France today, President Emmanuel Macron, was far from fiddling when the Notre Dame Cathedral burned in Paris on April 16. Nero's hostility towards Christians (Rome's fire was allegedly triggered so Nero could watch them suffer), contrasts with the Christian reflection evoked by a threatened Notre Dame across a secular Europe today.
The fire was quelled within hours at Notre Dame, leaving Macron, who has promised France and Europe so much upon ascending his post, to make his boldest proposal yet: to rebuild the cathedral "even more beautifully," within five years. French philanthropists donated almost a billion dollars within a week (François-Henri Pinault, the Bettencourt-Meyers family, Henri Kravis), but only Macron playing his life's most crucial innings can salvage a tottering France.
France's 21st century has been problematic. Domestically, terrorist linkages with soiled suburbs, populism threatening democracy, and the ongoing middle-class yellow-vest protests destabilising Parisian streets, have all complicated governance. Externally, Brexit, transatlantic uncertainties, and yet another bid to become Europe's leader after Angela Merkel, impose huge tolls. Typically vivant, the French people now look worn, pessimistic, and precipitous.
In addition to uniting the French and unwittingly enhancing a Christian strain, the fire promoted a sense of nationalism and served as an instrument to rally, even identify, friends. For a start, it gives the endless yellow-vest movement a protracted pause. Macron, against whose neoliberal reforms it rallied, gets more time to somehow show some of his promised benefits. Although the April 12, 2019 Brexit deal deflected Great Britain's exit deadline to the end of October, the Notre Dame fire displaced Brexit from front-page news (and media domination for weeks). Intertwining domestic and European dynamics is still central to any French revival.
France is famous for making long-term recoveries. Past recoveries were mostly battle-laced. Who would have thought that within only a handful of years from the 1789 French Revolution and the 1793-4 reign of terror that France would rule all of continental Europe, and as far east as Russia? Interestingly, Bonaparte's Waterloo defeat in June 1815 could not halt French greatness (not just militarily, but also in culture and literature, for instance). By the time another Napoleon emerged half a century later, Notre Dame's iconic spire was built as testimony to the country's elevated architectural taste and inherent desire to be noted, while Victor Hugo's 1830s Hunchback of Notre Dame masterpiece reiterated similar themes on the literary front. Defeat to Prussia in 1871 could not stop constructing another tell-tale structure, the Eiffel Tower in 1889 (no less for a "world" trade fair). Thirty-years later the 1919 Treaty of Versailles helped France recuperate all that was lost in 1871, and then some. France's liberation from Adolf Hitler's forces could not but have a Notre Dame signature: the 1944 ceremony was as historical as the 800-year Gothic venue had become. We can be sure when cathedral reconstruction finishes, Macron might host the grandest Notre Dame ceremony ever.
By that time, Macron hopes to be the dominant European leader. He has not waited long in the wings to wish that outcome or grab that pre-eminent spot, but his ambition carries a typical French arrogance. That only comes from a citizen of a country dominating the continent longer than any other, on the battlefield, in diplomacy, and through language, cuisine, fashion, literature, and so on. The more one scrutinises his traits, the more one finds traces of France's.
Notre Dame's fire also carries continental parallels. How can one not reflect upon the bakery-oven London explosion in 1666 that reconfigured the city's landscape, making the shift from the bucolic to the cosmopolitan irreversible, just when the East India Company had put Great Britain on the world-map (created, as the company was, in 1600)? London becoming the world's financial capital was, as if, meant to rival Notre Dame pushing Paris to be the same culturally.
Were it not for the February 1933 Reichstag (Parliament) fire, Adolf Hitler's trajectory might have been short-circuited. He used the event, through the Fire Act, to clamp down on many freedoms, thus cornering people he did not like, such as communists and Jews. France was among his earliest victims. The rest was history, one so sick it is worth repelling. Never since has it been more urgent to keep in Europe's rear-view mirror than today.
More comparable to the Notre Dame stature was the November 1992 fire at Windsor Castle. Material losses were heavy and costs high, but the edifice survived, as too the dynasty. Since then the British monarchy has been on a roll, getting more popular each and every day. Whether this is a function of the graceful aging of its longest-serving monarchy, or the fairy-tale marriages of her two grandsons (and possible heirs), one does not know for sure, but Macron has a model to ruminate as he wades his way out of the too many unchartered waters his country is in.
In partial amendment, one must say the highest price paid for European fires, and the flock that has lost more lives than the "who's who" list, has been farmers and country-dwellers, who faced even more ravaging encounters, almost every summer. Three of the deadliest wildfires across Europe have been in this century (compiled by the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services): Portugal (2017), for 5 days, with 64 fatalities; Russia (2015), killing 34 people and hundreds of animals; and Greece (2007), with 77 victims. It would be fitting to compare the press coverage of all three against Notre Dame's. Why, this one fire may have elicited more reports than all the fires annually across Europe, nowadays nearing the 80,000 mark.
Pushing the point, though Notre Dame got all that it deserved after the fire, from worldwide attention to a quick-fire billion for the monumental recovery, barely anyone even blinks at the more continuously tragic fires in Palestine from actions taken against them, or the hundreds of thousands of children barely surviving in displaced homes or refugee camps across Bangladesh, in and around Syria, and Yemen. When one injured fireman at Notre Dame gets more newspaper fame than any victim in any of these locations, "no angel born in Hell," as per McLean, can "break that Satan's spell."
Parisian philanthropists dished out millions overnight for a noble Notre Dame cause. Posterity will benefit from their interventions. Yet, only when charity will know no boundaries (class, cultural, national), that is, philanthropists outside of France helping the Notre Dame cause just as French philanthropists helping those outside, will benefits such as these multiply to where they need to be. Since Christianity preaches that, and humans have always been stirred by it, the message to take from Notre Dame is that the day reality is universally interpreted in the same way is never too far away. When that happens, fires, fates, and fortunes will cease to be the devil's best friends.
Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).