Notre-Dame de Paris, 15 April and 15 August

15 April is an important date. Not just for Bruno Le Maire, whose birthday it is, but also because, on his fiftieth birthday, the flames ravaged Notre-Dame de Paris [Our Lady of Paris] before his, our and the whole world’s eyes, threatening to destroy it completely.

Bruno le Maire tells the story of this dramatic event in the very first chapter of his latest book “L’Ange et la Bête” (The Angel and the Beast). What we read is a powerful expression of what was experienced on that unforgettable day, the huge flames, acrid smell of smoke mixed with molten lead and petrified faces – in the literal sense of the word, like the cathedral’s gargoyles – of the people of Paris and visitors from all over the world riveted on a building which, had it completely collapsed, would have swept away their lives, their histories, their landmarks, a part of civilisation; the wobbling culminating in the simultaneously awesome and tragic toppling of Viollet-le-Duc’s spire which, although a nineteenth-century addition to a building just short of a thousand years old, had nonetheless become an emblematic symbol of the whole edifice.

Where were we then? As this is the most visited monument in France, everyone will forever remember what they were doing on that particular 15 April. I cannot avoid this question. Having lived for some fifteen years in the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame, the only street running alongside the cathedral, at the foot of its stained glass windows failing to block out the echoes of organ concerts I found myself a few hundred meters from the Place de la Sorbonne. It was impossible for me to go there because it would have meant going to the scene of my own destruction. The office of the President of the Arab World Institute, which I served for several years, looked directly out onto the cathedral and so every day I could see this flagship on the high seas that France has offered the world. Without limiting myself to any Franco-French perception because I saw no national border when gazing at it, the buttresses at the rear seeming to me to frame and protect a treasure which, like the Delphi omphalos, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, the whole of Rome or even the Forbidden City, was nothing less, than one of the centres of the world.

Right up until just under fifty or so years ago, the Notre-Dame district was still home to the people of Paris, its craftsmen and small shops, a contemporary version of the people portrayed by Victor Hugo. Still bordering the square are some outstanding buildings, including the Hôtel-Dieu hospital and the Police Prefecture, where so many ceremonies, have, alas, honoured those who gave their lives doing their duty to protect us. It was on this same square – and not inside the cathedral – that I remember hearing Pope John Paul II speak during his first official visit to France. He was not only turning to the “Elder Daughter of the Church”, he was speaking to France and, because it was him and he was here, he was speaking to the world. I have cherished for years the words he spoke then like a viaticum for journeying across remote areas. His question, so simply put and yet so far-reaching that it may take more than a lifetime to understand it, still resonates with these words: “Are you in love? Are you in love with me?”

Over the years when every day I crossed the square in front of Notre-Dame, in summer, winter, in spring filled with wonder at the trees in blossom in the square at the foot of the great rose window, in winter on the Seine side, braving the wind and rain at times sweeping through the deserted square, I used to see the same man in a wheelchair selling postcards. Despite his disability, he exuded physical power and extraordinary charisma. I never dared speak to him, even though he was my neighbour, one of many in this magical area. I always felt bad about my misplaced reserve, for he did not know that, under the porch of Notre-Dame, by his example he had given me the strength to overcome so many obstacles.

Notre-Dame will recover and we will recover with it, and President Macron recently confirmed that the five-year deadline scheduled for the restoration, which is mobilising so much talent, support and self-sacrifice, would be met. So Happy birthday Minister Le Maire,
Happy birthday France and may 15 April also be our 15 August…

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