Nidra Poller

Paris Weeps as Notre Dame Burns

Notre Dame ablaze
Notre Dame ablaze

April 15th, President Macron was scheduled to address the nation at 8 PM, to present a sort of executive summary of government policy, revised but not diverted by five months of weekly Gilet Jaune actions. I switched on the television 10 minutes before the hour, expecting to hear the usual quibbling: The Gilets Jaunes expect nothing and won’t be satisfied until the president resigns. What a surprise. Commentators, specialists, journalists and the man in the street don’t think any real problem will be really solved. That’s a safe bet. They will all, who knows why, entertain the confusion between the Gilets Jaunes, boiled down to some thirty thousand seditionists, and French voters that may or may not have joined in the great national debate. President Macron does not have to satisfy the Gilets Jaunes. We live in a democracy, not a tyranny of turbulent minorities.

I turn on the television.

No, it’s not the panel waiting to pounce on the president.

It’s Notre Dame in flames.

You don’t have to be Catholic, Christian, or a lover of cathedral architecture. You don’t have to be Parisian, French, or a citizen of the western world. Raging flames devouring Notre Dame can bring tears to your eyes. It is universally heartbreaking.

Here in Paris, awestruck pedestrians stopped in their tracks. Gasped. Prayed. Exclaimed. Sobbed. Watched in disbelief as the sky-high inferno defied our will and determination. On the doorstep of Holy Week, Notre Dame was going up in flames and it looked like nothing could stop it. Do leaden roof tiles burn and melt, do stones go white hot and lose their grip, will we watch, helpless, as fire consumes the entire edifice, leaving a gaping black hole in the heart of Paris?

Is it terrorism? No one knows. It is absolutely terrifying. What if nothing could stop the blaze? It could spread across the Ile St. Louis, swallowing up mansions and touristy restaurants, leveling expensive hotels and sizzling a dozen Berthillon ice cream parlors.

Time stands still, the 19th century Viollet-le-Duc spire fills to bursting with red hot flames, dense turbulent multi-color smoke billows and roars. It seems like nothing can get on top of the fire. No ladder can reach that high. President Trump slaps us with a scorching tweet: Bring on the water bombardiers! Commentators, originally brought in to haggle over President Macron’s speech, mumble and stutter. Hmmm, maybe the Canadairs are too far south? I can hear my American friends snickering. “Those stupid French don’t even know how to extinguish cathedral fires.” It takes a while before we learn that a cathedral is not a forest, even when the roof beams are made of hoary oak. You can’t bombard Notre Dame with tons of water. The walls would come tumbling down.

The spire bends and collapses like a spent candle.

Later, we join the stream of people coming from all directions, on foot, on scooters, bikes, and motorcycles, converging in hushed tones at vista points on Ile St. Louis. An urban pilgrimage that reminds us, on a very small scale, of the millions that walked through the city after the Charlie Hebdo / Hyper Cacher / Montrouge jihad attack. Leaving the fire behind, we walk along the quai, embraced by a mild spring evening and the enduring beauty of bridges spanning the Seine, lights glittering on the softly flowing river.

Synagogues brûlées République en danger

“Torched Synagogues Troubled République.” We marched behind that banner in April 2002. The synagogue in Trappes had burned to the ground in October 2000. They said it was caused by a short circuit. And today we discover that French churches by the hundreds are desecrated, vandalized, sullied and cursed with Allahu akhbars. Arson is suspected in a March 17th fire at l’Eglise St. Sulpice. A week earlier a suspect was arrested for vandalizing the Basilique St. Denis. Inès Madani, ringleader of a cluster of niqab-clad jihadists was just sentenced to eight years in prison for enlisting and inciting terrorists. She will be tried six months from now for the botched car bomb attack on a side street near Notre Dame in 2016.

Two and two make four but the agonizing repetition of jihad assaults on the Western world does not prove that the spectacular Notre Dame fire is part of the series. While many, of all origins, shed tears over the blaze, others are exulting. Including antifas, left wing ultras, and ranking members of the French Students’ Union. France’s chief rabbi Haim Korsia was one of the first to express solidarity. Muslims can be found on both sides of the divide. Before the Notre Dame fire, Gilets Jaunes and assorted allies solemnly promised to burn and bleed Paris this Saturday. Apocalypse now. It is their prepaid reaction to the president’s — now postponed — speech. The government has been on the defensive since mid-November, allowing Yellow Saturdays to become an abiding feature of the cityscape. Thugs — of the gilet jaune, black blocs or banlieue persuasion — attack the police, torch cars and banks, sack and plunder boutiques, pelt firemen with rocks, and spout trash ideologies. They are the ones that vandalized l’Arc de Triomphe, fellow of the Tour Eiffel – Notre Dame trinity.

What do we know now, what will we know eventually? At this stage, the fire is being investigated by a criminal police unit… as accidental. They cannot go into the cathedral until inspectors have eliminated the danger of structural collapse. We don’t know if concrete evidence of the fire’s origin has gone up in smoke or is lurking in the charred and sodden remains that skulk on the cathedral floor. Officials have access to countless sources of information, while those who suspect a jihad attack rely on shaky “if x then y” logic. They assume that mainstream media, hand in hand with the government, will hide the truth.

Spontaneous combustion

The logic of real life is not so simple. The monumental Notre Dame fire may have been caused by a careless gesture or by an arsonist hell bent on destruction. A moment of inattention, a slight misjudgment, a stupid coincidence can have tragic consequences in a human life. A small spark could be responsible for the inferno that almost destroyed Notre Dame. According to published reports, when the first alarm rang at 6:20 PM the cathedral was evacuated but the source of the fire was not detected. 23 minutes later, the fire alarm rang again, and it was already too late to keep the fire from spreading to the entire roof. From there on, it’s a story of courage and heroism. The crown of thorns, the tunic of St. Louis the Crusader, and other treasures were saved. The belfries did not collapse. No fatalities. One firefighter slightly injured. The stained glass windows and the organ are apparently intact.

And the soul-searching begins. Was the cathedral, like so many national monuments, pauperized, bereft of safety features that would have prevented this colossal damage? Is it the lack of faith and penury of the faithful that reduces the Catholic architectural heritage to one more Disneyland? Has our capitalist, individualist, globalized, consumerist society turned its back on past glory and failed in its duty of transmission? The shame of the Church mired in abject pedophile scandals could, in itself, destroy one cathedral after the other by spontaneous combustion. And the Pope? Too busy compromising with Islam, shielding Jerusalem from Jewish sovereignty, and exhorting us to welcome immigrants to protect the fast-disappearing Christians of the Levant.

Mixed feelings

Holy Week was mortally dangerous for Jews in Christian lands. The main entrance to Notre Dame is flanked on the left by the statue of the blindfolded Sinagoga and on right by the noble Ecclesia. Ramadan is perilous for Jews in Islamic countries… or neighborhoods. The fiery Erdogan wants to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. And today, when the great fortunes of France have pledged hundreds of millions of euros to restore Notre Dame… the social justice gang gives them boos and sneers. If they had so much money, why didn’t they give it to us… the people?

Jihad, cheap Facebook unrest, social media gutterish, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, incendiary balloons from Gaza, seething hatred, vituperation, depravity, raging transgenderism, identity politics, cultural impoverishment, and flames leaping from the age-old rooftops of Notre Dame that bring tears to my eyes. I weep for the fragility of civilization, here in its concrete monumental form, there in the eloquent expression of noble values. For one night, the flames of Notre Dame portrayed those devouring forces that stubbornly defy our humanity.

Notre Dame ablaze
About the Author
Nidra Poller is an American-born writer who has lived in Paris since 1972. She is author of works of fiction in English and in French, and has published in many venues, including the Wall Street Journal Europe, Family Security Matters, New English Review, Times of Israel (French), Commentary, Midah. She is the author of literary-political books testifying to the Troubled Dawn of the 21st Century and novels: madonna madonna (français) and So Courage & Gypsy Motion.
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