Read: What the November 13 attacks taught Paris
Those were painful times, at once galvanizing and divisive. After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, there was a sense that one had to take sides. It was either “Je suis Charlie”—solidarity with the murdered and injured, a defense of free speech at all costs—or not. There was little room for nuance. Later, conversations began about problems in France’s banlieues, the ones that produced generations of a largely Muslim underclass from which some of these terrorists had hailed. The mood shifted again after November 13. By then, it was clear that these terrorists wanted to strike at the heart of everything that made Paris, Paris—its joie de vivre, its cafés, its nightlife, its intermingling of people from all races and religions.
The fire at Notre-Dame feels different. It has prompted a collective outpouring of sadness. Investigators believe that the blaze started by accident, on a part of the structure being restored.
Notre-Dame isn’t just a Catholic monument or even a French monument, although it is a national symbol of France. It’s a pillar of world heritage, something to be treasured unambiguously by anyone with even a modicum of heart.
Read: France’s paradoxes, embodied in a cathedral
This week, French newspapers ran stories about how French Muslims and Jews—the country has Europe’s largest population of both—were also expressing sadness about the fire. The fact that this is even considered news tells you a lot about how complicated religious identity can be in France, a country of universalism that officially does not recognize religion—or race—but in practice has 67 million citizens of many different backgrounds.
Fluctuat nec mergitur. The motto dates to the 16th century, but was adopted by Paris in the 19th. In this, it echoes the now-destroyed spire of Notre-Dame itself, which was designed in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc in a style that invoked the medieval. Notre-Dame, like Paris itself, is a palimpsest.
Already, debates are raging about Church and state and who will pay for the restoration. And about whether to rebuild Notre-Dame as it was, or to reinvent it, as has been done time and again over the centuries. President Emmanuel Macron’s call for architects to design a new spire has started an intense conversation about conservatism and conservation. At least one right-wing politician has said that France’s patrimony should be kept as is. Others have called for more reinvention. This pull between past and future, between an impulse to preserve and an impulse to innovate, is the central fulcrum of Macron’s presidency. It, too, is in the balance here.
After the terrorist attacks of 2015, when many human lives were taken and the city was frightened and on edge, I was inclined to stay home and avoid crowds. After the fire at Notre-Dame, I’ve found myself pulled toward the monument, wanting to be closer to it and in the company of other strangers who also want to be closer. How was it doing today? How was it holding up? I looked toward the cathedral from the Île Saint Louis or the Right Bank. It was like visiting an old friend who was in distress and needed support.