What the Reactions to the Notre Dame Fire Tell Us About France and About Ourselves

The devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15 provoked an outpouring of grief in France and throughout the world. It also led several of the richest men in France to pledge more than $1 billion for the rebuilding. That amount, in turn, has provoked more critics than gratitude. Many have wondered why there is so much money available to repair a building rather than to house the poor in France or to aid refugees around the world. Those critics and others ask why a few people have so much money in the first place, and if their wealth is the reason the French government has been unable to afford to maintain Notre Dame and thousands of other buildings with great historic value throughout France. 

Notre Dame is the architectural masterpiece that sits literally at the center of the most visited city on Earth. It was built over two hundred years from the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. However we need to realize that it was extensively rebuilt in the nineteenth century and most of the gargoyles and other statues were modeled on the imagined descriptions of the originals as described by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. An hour away from Paris by train is the cathedral in Chartres that retains most of its original medieval sculptures and has stained glass windows that are even more impressive than those in Notre Dame. Today’s tourists tend to avoid small provincial cities and so Chartres is not clogged with visitors. We will see if that changes now that Notre Dame will be inaccessible for years. 

No doubt a mix of ideas and feelings combined to produce the mass grief over the fire. At base certainly is awe at an artistic masterpiece and amazement that such a edifice could have been produced eight hundred year ago in an age of minimal technological capacity, but evidently a clear and harmonious vision of beauty. For me, and certainly for millions of others, it provoked awe every time I saw it. For the relatively few religious Christians in France and the many more with lingering connections to that faith, Notre Dame powerfully evokes that ancient if changing tradition. The Christian symbols expressed in that and other cathedrals appear throughout Western art and still are used in paintings, architecture, and other forms today. Just as it is easier to focus on the image or story of a single refugee who is named than it is on statistics that present the vast scope of the refugee problem, so it is much more possible for us to grieve at the loss of a building we may have seen ourselves or at least viewed in photos or films than it is to think about the gradual destruction of artistic monuments throughout the world. 

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For all these reasons, the fire is seen as a major tragedy and provoked immediate pledges of aid. Yet the leading role taken by the very richest Frenchmen raises other questions. First, where was the French government? Why was this jewel of French culture allowed to deteriorate and why weren’t preventive measures of the sorts installed in other, often poorer, countries taken? France’s overall government budget is lavish. France collects a higher portion of the GDP than any country in Europe, except for those in Scandinavia. However, budget receipts have declined as taxes on the rich were cut repeatedly under presidents from Mitterrand to Macron. In essence, these ‘gifts’ by the rich for Notre Dame are small fractions of the money they have saved over decades thanks to tax cuts. In addition, the donations themselves will be tax deductible so in fact the French government will be paying through lost tax revenues for more than half the contributions credited to these rich donors. This reality is clear to many in France and provokes bitterness instead of gratitude to the men who have gotten so much richer over the past forty years while most French people have stagnated. 

A more profound question is whether in a world of poverty and suffering it makes sense to spend so much repairing a building rather than attending to the needs of humans. The same question could have been asked when Notre Dame was first built, and almost everyone lived at a level that was lower than even the poorest people or the most deprived refuges in the world today. Medieval poverty was not, for the most part, due to the costs of building cathedrals. It was caused by low technological levels and by the aristocracy’s private consumption. Today technology isn’t much of a factor, but private spending by the rich far outpaces the costs of creating and restoring artistic masterpieces. The $1 billion that will be spent to rebuild Notre dame is a pittance compared to the $23 billion annual revenues taken in by LVMH Moët Hennessy- Louis Vuitton SE, which sells high-priced champagne, clothes, luggage and perfume. Bernard Arnault, LVMH’s CEO, promised €200 million for the Notre Dame rebuilding. We all can think of other firms and individuals who have gotten rich selling overpriced baubles to other rich people, or who use the profits they realize from ordinary industries to buy themselves paintings, or apartments in Paris, London or New York, that cost as much as what Arnault is donating to the Notre Dame rebuilding. 

The choice for the French government is not between housing the homeless or rebuilding Notre Dame and restoring other cultural monuments. The real decision is whether or not to continue the neoliberal policy of continually cutting taxes for the rich in the so far vain hope that it would generate growth rates comparable to what occurred in the thirty years after 1945. Instead, governments could increase taxes on the rich and then have enough revenue to house the homeless and to restore cultural monuments, and on top of that improve the whole range of public services. This is the choice facing not just the French but governments and voters in countries around the world.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.