PARIS – Two minutes before seven in the evening, it was possible to see the thick smoke rising to the skies from anywhere in Paris. And even though it was clear that this was a major fire in the center of the city, very few people imagined that it was their cathedral going up in flames.
Ten minutes later, it was impossible to find room to watch the fire on the bridges over the Seine, the same way it was impossible to avoid the cloud of sadness that began to fall on France – and beyond its borders. “If only my tears could put out this fire,” as the legendary television host Bernard Pivot succinctly expressed what many were feeling.
This was the first fire at the cathedral, an amazing fact when you think about all the dangers it overcame since construction began in 1163: From the religious wars to the Nazi occupation, and through the French Revolution. The last fire at the site occurred in the 9th century when the church there went up in flames, enabling the construction of the present cathedral.
If a burning Notre Dame can nevertheless be found in the world’s popular imagination, it is thanks to Victor Hugo’s hunchback, whose prophecy of wrath has suddenly been fulfilled – on a pleasant Paris evening in the 21st century. And it is the 21st century that led to this disaster: Renovations are being carried out at the site and it seems they are linked to the outbreak of the fire. The renovations were intended to make the cathedral’s roof accessible to the disabled, to meet European Union regulations. The work to install an elevator in a historic building from the Middle Ages was the responsibility of the Vatican and the French Catholic Church, according to the French system of separation of religion and state.
French President Emmanuel Macron canceled an economic speech to the nation and joined the rescue services on the scene. A lot depends now on Macron, on how he chooses to present the disaster – but mostly on his decision about the expected restoration of the cathedral. The second most important cathedral in France, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, was destroyed in World War I, and rebuilt quickly. Very few visitors today know they are visiting a reconstruction. Notre-Dame de Paris is not really from the Middle Ages either, the wooden roof collapsed in the 19th century, for example, and the section being renovated is an addition from the 14th century.
When the scale of the disaster becomes known – whether the stained glass windows, central prayer hall, and basically entire ground floor were damaged – Macron will need his words of comfort, but mostly a spirit of optimism for rebuilding. It is easy to imagine what the leader of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen, will say in her campaign for the European Parliament elections to be held next month. The official statement on Monday stated that no one was injured, but as Victor Hugo warned, there will still be many victims.