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Notre Dame and the French Elite

In April, Notre Dame burned, reduced to its structure after almost eight centuries standing proud, amidst all the catastrophes of history that have befallen Paris. This unexpected spectacle replaced the one France was expecting, yet another useless policy speech by president Emanuel Macron. We expect France to unite, grieve as a nation, and perhaps even settle some of their differences in a way that nobly advances what they hold in common, what makes them French.

We always hope, as we must, to turn bad things to the good, and so do the French. But this is unlikely, for reasons that become obvious if we look at the political crisis Macron was to have addressed: The Yellow Vest protests that started last fall; his infamous unpopularity, which has haunted him for the better part of two years; and, ultimately, the inability of the French Fifth Republic to function as Frenchmen suppose it should—to secure a common good and persuade them they have a future together more important than their quarrels. For now, the quarrels continue and the French electorate has decided to humiliate Macron in the recent elections for the European Parliament, by giving Marine Le Pen the victory, whom Macron had defeated in the second round of the Presidential elections.

If France is supposed to rally in the wake of this tragedy, we assume they must rebuild Notre Dame, as Macron has already declared they will. This can be done, to a point, although Frenchmen have lost some of the arts required for cathedral building. Indeed, the French Senate has just approved the bill of the National Assembly to fund reconstruction, but added a clause that it should be rebuilt without any changes. If the Assembly approves this change, Macron will have to accept this humiliation—he had wanted to add some changes, at least minimum modernizing touches to Notre Dame.

This disagreement raises a question: Will the rebuilt Notre Dame still be a Catholic church? Or a museum, which is mostly what it has been since the state took it over in 1905? True, by law, the Catholic Church, the archdiocese of Paris, has exclusive rights to use the Notre Dame for service, as well as the duty to keep it open to visitors free of charge, as well as incur most costs involved in its operation and maintenance.

Church and State in France

The status of Notre Dame and the purpose of its rebuilding will reopen the theological-political problem people believe to have been settled by the laicization of 1905 and will thus renew a great political quarrel in France. How Catholic is France? Macron spoke in his usual empty words, saying the history of France and the destiny of France are more or less the same, and they require this rebuilding, and it shall be done—the people want it. We must hope he will now become more thoughtful about why Notre Dame matters to the French, beyond tourism or a vague sense of pride.

The theological-political problem I mentioned is itself part of the history of Notre Dame. Before it was laicized by the Third Republic along with all French churches built before 1905, it was desecrated with great energy during the First Republic soon after the French Revolution. Nevertheless the French celebrate both the Revolution and Notre Dame.

The question concerning rebuilding Notre Dame thus points to the massive political conflict in France in our own times. The Fifth Republic itself is in crisis. On the one hand, Macron is the favored son and champion of the France of the prospering cities and the upper classes. But his supporters are far fewer than his great victory in the second round of balloting might suggest—far fewer than polls themselves may suggest, which nevertheless reveal his unpopularity.

On the other hand, the opposition to Macron is united only in disliking him with various degrees of intensity. Much of the population, perhaps a majority, doesn’t really believe he has their best interests at heart. It would be very difficult to persuade them they are wrong.

Secular or Sacred?

Now let us turn from the protracted political strife to the great suffering of the French people who saw Notre Dame burning. If it is grief, that is because they lost something they loved. To rebuild would be to regain what they lost. But what is the nature of this loss? If all the French people have lost is their past, that cannot be regained, only imitated.

This means that France is in danger of reconstructing Notre Dame as a tourist museum. It would give delight to untold millions of visitors, no doubt, but it would be a great blow to France. Part of the unspeakable pain of losing Notre Dame has to do with the complicated past of France and thus with this question: Where does the Catholic Church fit in France—now and in the future?

The opposition to Macron and to the social classes he represents—and the contempt with which they treat so much of France—might unite around the Catholic electorate in France, which is broadly speaking to the right, especially considering the atheist-intellectual character of the French left. Catholics should strive to bring France together now, since the loss of Notre Dame is a national catastrophe. But to bring France together would require a vision of the common good that can overcome the great conflict along class lines that Macron has provoked and which has led to these unending protests.

This is worrisome for two reasons. First, it would make Christianity in France as polarizing or partisan as it is now in America. There is something like American Progressivism in France—a left that has no use for faith in public life, especially Christianity. But it is impossible to rebuild Notre Dame without making faith a public issue, because a church, unlike other buildings, is not simply private property. To rebuild the past would be foolish—but to rebuild Notre Dame with a view to the future, to what may be permanent in France, what Macron magniloquently calls destiny, would inevitably assert the public importance of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church. This would suggest the end of laicization in France, which has been state policy since 1905, so that it now seems impossible to imagine it could be changed—especially to the elites that broadly identify with intellectual atheism.

Secondly, if the Catholic electorate tries to unite France against contemptuous elites that have proved unable to govern well, such that their claim to expertise is no longer accepted as a form of legitimacy, then Christianity will have to become more political and patriotic than it has been since the French Revolution. The Catholic Church in France was for a long time more patriotic than the universal calling of the Catholic Church would suggest, not infrequently preferring France to Rome, or king to pope—but that was also a Catholicism that served the French monarchy and the aristocratic elites of France. It would be a great transformation—a great modernization—for the Catholic Church to now be on the side of the majority against the elites.

Relearning Seriousness

We should think back to Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris (1831), to see how great Frenchmen have acted at the highest level to save the cathedral, by renewing the love Frenchmen feel for it, at a time when it was still suffering from the great misery inflicted on it by the excesses of the Enlightenment. Hugo did not try to argue or perform ceremonies, but instead persuaded his countrymen of the love and reverence they must feel for the Cathedral—by promising that they will find themselves, come to know themselves, in their great past, with all its drama.

The ruling class of France seems utterly inadequate to teaching the nation how to grieve. Something serious must be said—something that takes into account the crisis of France and the heartbreak of this loss. In this respect, only a great poet can save the French people. I am reminded that when Hugo died, two million Frenchmen attended his funeral in a procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon where he is entombed. Indeed, in the 1880s, France gloried in him. Who since has dared to speak to France as he did? Yet, what better occasion for such a man to arise than our present crisis?

One more thing must be said about the current crisis. Tocqueville says in his introduction to Democracy in America that the Catholic Church was part of the origin of democracy in France. The openness of the clergy to all social ranks subtly undermined the hereditary rule of the aristocracy. It was of the people, in a strange way, and for the people, since it taught the Christian doctrine of equality under God and the universal love of Christ, which is no greater for a king than for a servant. Christianity is more natural and more French than rule by elites—if it can find its political vocation and its patriotic purpose.

To make sense of French history and see in it the destiny of France means to retrieve the sources of French grandeur in a time where they are urgently needed. The French, starting with Macron, need something more than policy speeches—they need to face their catastrophe with faith and thus rediscover powers that have long languished. So far, French Catholics, intellectuals and leaders especially, have been supine, when they should be organizing weekly pilgrimages to Notre Dame. One hopes they will wake up from their slumber and step forward into the public space.

Reader Discussion

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on June 07, 2019 at 10:23:54 am

I would like to correct just two of the misunderstandings of French politics found here, in order to discourage readers from putting to much reliance on its conclusions.
1) " Indeed, the French Senate has just approved the bill of the National Assembly to fund reconstruction, but added a clause that it should be rebuilt without any changes. If the Assembly approves this change..." IF that happens, check hell for ice. The Senate is still controlled by the French right, regularly alters Macron's proposals beyond recognition... and it is all meaningless, as in France, unlike the US, all the Senate can do is delay the original proposal from being passed into law regardless of their views.
2) "The French electorate has decided to humiliate Macron in the recent elections for the European Parliament, by giving Marine Le Pen the victory". No, that didn't happen. Yes, Le Pen's party got a handful more votes than Macron's in the European elections. Compared to the result of EVERY previous European election, every one of which was won, by a large majority, by the leading opposition to the party governing France, this is really quite a success for Macron, since LePen's party, alas, is the leading opposition party. Furthermore, Le Pen's score is about the same as 4 years ago. If these results are duplicated in the first round of the next presidential election, and there is good reason to expect that, Macron will coast to victory in round 2, like last time.
By the way, unlike the author this piece, the French were really quite happy with Macron's immediate response to the Notre Dame tragedy - even Jean-Marie Le Pen praised him!

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Alan Kahan
on June 07, 2019 at 10:40:57 am

As an American Muslim I am troubled by France’s strict adherence to laïcism. It is the anathema of true freedom and binds all to some secular social norm. Religious expression should be a guaranteed form
Of freedom of expression whether it be through the public display of crosses, kippahs, or hijab. As you point out France’s faith was one of the strong drives behind its revolution. So perhaps Frances’s laïcité is behind its social stasis.

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Nick Firoozye
on June 07, 2019 at 10:50:52 am

[…] Rebuilding Notre Dame “will reopen the theological-political problem people believe to have been settled by the laicization of 1905 and will thus renew a great political quarrel in France,” warns Titus Techera  on Law & Liberty. […]

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News about History for June | Jane Takes On History
on June 07, 2019 at 11:03:30 am

“First, it would make Christianity in France as polarizing or partisan as it is now in America.”

Love does not divide, it multiplies, just as in The Loaves And Fishes. That which is polarizing or partisan is not of The Holy Ghost.

Our Lady, Destroyer Of All Heresy, who through your Fiat, affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), and thus the fact that There Is Only One Begotten Son Of God, One Word Of Love Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of The World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only Be One Spirit Of Perfect Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

“Love Thee, Notre Dame.”

“Who do you say IAm”, is the question that must be answered first and foremost if you desire to come to Know, Love, and Serve God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, In this world, so that hopefully, you can be with God and your beloved forever, in Heaven.

It has always been about The Marriage, In Heaven and on the earth.

“Blessed are those who are Called to The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb.”

“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles. "

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Nancy
on June 07, 2019 at 14:16:46 pm

… what Macron magniloquently calls destiny….

Big word for someone who writes an essay about how rebuilding a roof would be a disaster unless it somehow symbolically entails the French re-embracing Catholicism. I could do without the histrionics in French or English.

According to Techera, when Macron calls for rebuilding the roof, that’s bad— ‘cuz Yellow Vest. Never mind that Macron’s popularity is rising while the majority of the French have wearied of the Yellow Vest movement.

Nay, to TRULY rebuild the roof, Techera assures us, one must embrace the spirit of Victor Hugo, author of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, just as the French did back in the 1800s. An odd thing to say, given Hugo’s famous antipathy for the Catholic Church. He wrote multiple poems about his opposition to Rome, including “Torquemada” (1869, about religious fanaticism), “The Pope” (1878, anti-clerical), “Religions and Religion” (1880, denying the usefulness of churches) and, published posthumously, “The End of Satan” and “God” (1886 and 1891 respectively, in which he represents Christianity as a griffin and rationalism as an angel). When his sons died, Hugo insisted that they be buried without crucifix or priest—and he insisted on the same for his own funeral. (You might have gotten a clue to his feelings, given that the chief villain in Hunchback is the Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral.)

And yes, the French embraced Hugo as a national hero. Just as I expect they’ll embrace the idea of rebuilding the cathedral’s roof—with or without the symbolism Techera craves.

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nobody.really
on June 07, 2019 at 15:00:44 pm

" Never mind that Macron’s popularity is rising while the majority of the French have wearied of the Yellow Vest movement. "

Now REALLY, really!

Not according to France 24 as evidenced below:

"The popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron remains stuck at under 30 percent as he battles a series of political troubles, with no major change reported after the Notre-Dame fire, a poll said Sunday.

According to the Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche just 29 percent of people polled said they are satisfied with the job Macron is doing, with 69 percent dissatisfied.

This April reading was unchanged from the last poll in March, the newspaper said.

The poll, carried out up until April 20, was published at the end of a dramatic week for Macron which saw him address the nation over the damage to the Notre-Dame cathedral in Monday's devastating fire."

BTW: Manent offers a similar, if somewhat more erudite suggestion than the one above.

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gabe
on June 07, 2019 at 15:13:58 pm

Excuse me, but as your text states, that poll was from 20 April. Macron's current popularity, post-European elections, is at 40%. See https://www.bfmtv.com/politique/apres-les-europeennes-la-confiance-des-francais-envers-macron-repart-a-la-hausse-1707367.html

If you want to know what percentage of the French public is interested in hardcore Catholicism, all you have to do is look at the vote for Les Républicains in the European elections: 8%

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Alan Kahan
on June 08, 2019 at 10:59:57 am

Not so fast, mon ami! See this link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_on_the_Emmanuel_Macron_presidency

Please note that in the first three polls of the table, which happen to be the latest, Macron does not better than 32% and as low as 25%. I suspect that the percentage may vary based upon WHO ios doing the polling and WHAT questions are asked.

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gabe
on June 09, 2019 at 16:49:03 pm

nobody.really: Never mind that Macron’s popularity is rising....

gabe :Not so fast, mon ami! See this link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_on_the_Emmanuel_Macron_presidency

Thanks to gabe for the link--which shows that Macron's popularity has been rising since April.

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nobody.really
on June 10, 2019 at 09:05:27 am

Hey, yeast also rises and 25% is not something to boast about is it? What kind of cake would you get if the yeast rose only 1/4 of what it could.
So you are saying that Macron is like unleavened bread - Ha!

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gabe
on June 10, 2019 at 12:42:24 pm

As any wine connoisseur knows, the yeast will do its work in its own time.

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nobody.really
on June 10, 2019 at 23:36:33 pm

Oh jeez, gabe, I was just joking about the whole wine thing, given the French theme and all. But didja have to call Trump?

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nobody.really
on June 11, 2019 at 01:02:11 am

[…] Chief Of The Vichy Knights Of Malta Forbids The Extraordinary Form – Fr. Z’s Blog Notre-Dame Cathedral & The French Elite – Titus Techera at Law & Liberty Back Row America – David Azerrad at Public […]

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TVESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
on June 11, 2019 at 09:40:07 am

nobody:

I just read about this. I must say I am thrilled at the prospects.
In Paris, I was amazed at the lack of American wine offerings in their larger retailers (not to mention the snobbery of the wine "stewards"). Then again, the Froggies impose quite a large tax on their own wines, so it is no surprise that they limit the availability of less expensive American wines, which to my mind are significantly better. However, i did enjoy a very delicious Pomerol - but at $65 Euros, it was NOT the equivalent of a solid Walla Walla red wine.

Oh well, as my beloved grandfather used to say, "Eat, Drink and be happy or not, but don;t forget your red wine, Mistah Gabe."

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gabe
on June 11, 2019 at 09:48:56 am

To each their own. I have always found that between French and American wines of equal quality, American wines cost $2-3/bottle more, IN THE USA. What you pay $8/bottle for at Costco ain't worth drinking. What you pay 7€/bottle for in a Paris supermarket or wine shop generally is. Why no American producer can make a decent bottle for under $15 is beyond me. There is no US equivalent in price/quality to Beaujolais (and I DON'T mean nouveau).
All that said, of course the French are snobs about wine. We don't drink nearly enough Italian or Spanish produce. But I think American wine taste is just too different from French. For example, in what order do you taste wines? In America, from dry to sweet, hence red to white. In France, from low alcohol to high, thus mostly white to red.

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Alan Kahan
on June 12, 2019 at 22:37:44 pm

Anyone who thinks red wine should be sweet MUST buy their wine at Costco.
I certainly don't.

and no, a $7 bottle of wine, irrespective of where purchased is still a SEVEN DOLLAR bottle of swill,

I would suggest that you try some "too different" American wines - not from California but from Walla Walla. Their reds are superb, highly structured, full without being overbearing (like California wines made to please James Beard).

The real issue is not cost or even quality, it is the fact that the "snobby" French would not deign to offer any american wines.

BTW: I will take Sicilian wines over most French wines.

And now to resume consuming a 95 point (Wine Spectator) Walla Walla Petit Verdot.

Enjoy, mon ami!

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gabe
on July 05, 2019 at 14:48:21 pm

Side note: The French have always loved the flashy trappings. Though a republic, they retained many of the symbols and character of their royal days to include some of the aristocratic titles. Notre Dame will probably be rebuilt to a reasonable similarity as before even if a few modernizations sneak in. PS: For wine lovers, try the $7-8 at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods from California or Oregon. While a bit different from the French, they are by no means inferior. There are probably other sources of good American wines but, unfortunately are not heavily promoted.

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Donald Link

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