I remember the moment when I understood the full significance of the Cathedral of Notre Dame: I was standing in a field 70 kilometers outside of Paris, marching alongside a group of mostly Muslim refugees, students of a Paris school of French language, culture, and history where I was teaching at the time. We were taking part in an Easter pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Chartres, an ancient French tradition that dates back to before the cathedral was even built in 1193. This pilgrimage, which thousands of French citizens still make each year, begins at Notre Dame in Paris.
It was a strange sight: 30 refugees, mostly Muslim, trekking from one grand symbol of French Catholicism to another to mark the Holy Week. I asked one of the school’s directors what to make of this. He laughed. For us, he said, this march has nothing to do with religion. It is a way to welcome refugees into French history. He was right: In a country that is increasingly secular and increasingly diverse, the sight of refugees on this ancient Catholic route was proof that the France of the past could embrace the France of the present—and vice-versa. That was what Notre Dame represented.
Now, though, it seems that Notre Dame might become a symbol for precisely the opposite. Before the flames even ceased, journalists began bemoaning a loss of France’s past. “Layers of history seemed to evaporate,” wrote The New York Times. And then there was the symbolism of the flames for today’s France—fractured and divided by the gilets jaunes protests, flush with militant laïcité that often doubles for thinly disguised Islamophobia, wringing its hands over its collective identity. The fire forced President Emmanuel Macron to cancel his major speech on the protests, which had been billed as an attempt to heal the nation. A speech intended to stop Paris from burning each weekend, canceled because Paris had found another way to burn. “The symbolism for the troubled country,” wrote the Times, “was hard to miss.”
And yet it would be wrong to turn this tragedy into a metaphor for the loss of France’s treasured past, or a symbol for her troubled present. The burning of Notre Dame is a horror. But it is also a rare opportunity, as fortunate as it is sickening, to unite the nation.
To view the fire this way would be a very French—and very Catholic—response. In 1882, the religious philosopher Ernest Renan delivered his famous essay, “What Is a Nation?” at the Sorbonne. Faced with a country reeling from the violent disruptions of the Paris Commune, Renan tried to bring France together. A nation, he argued, is based not on race, nor language, nor religion. Rather, “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.” That soul, he argued, is made up of two parts: “One is the past, the other is the present.” In the present, nations require a collective will to live together. That collective will is forged by collective memories of the past: of a “glorious heritage,” but also, and more important, of having “suffered together.” “Shared suffering,” wrote Renan, “unites more than does shared joy. In fact, periods of mourning are worth more to national memory than triumphs because they impose duties and require a common effort.”
Renan is a controversial figure. We should remain suspicious of his nation-as-soul argument, which can lead quickly to ugly nationalism. But we need not accept his idea of what defines a nation to accept his idea that shared suffering can, if interpreted well, bring a nation together.
As I watched the flames engulf Notre Dame’s spire, I wondered if this destruction could occasion a nearly perfect form of that shared suffering. Perfect because if, as authorities now believe, the blaze was indeed an accident, then it was a suffering without an enemy. France—Paris in particular—has felt no shortage of suffering these past few years. The country has witnessed some of the most horrific terrorist attacks in memory. And for the past few months, French citizens have fought against one another and against their state in their capital’s streets. These kind of sufferings have fractured France. They have created enemies—often along predictable racial lines—and have bound together some of the nation’s citizenry in opposition to others. But the fire of Notre Dame needs no enemy. It is suffering without retribution.
How we interpret that suffering, however, is yet to be seen. In the coming weeks, we will continue to create the meaning of the Notre Dame fire. Instead of decrying it as a symbol of France’s disappearing past and fraught present, we should seize it—as a timely reminder of the kind of nation France was, but also of the kind of nation it could become.
That is what the pilgrimage from Notre Dame to the Cathedral in Chartres means to the refugees with whom I walked: Anyone can embrace French patrimony and heritage—and the French, in turn, can embrace them. Last weekend, a new group of refugees made the pilgrimage for the eighth straight year.
Perhaps Macron’s canceled gilets jaunes speech would have healed the country. But given his now-chronic inability to heal the fractures in France—and his newfound inability, courtesy of Brexit, to heal the fractures in Europe—we have reason to doubt that it would have. Instead, we must hope for a bitter irony: that Notre Dame’s flames, and not Macron’s words, delivered the unifying message that France so desperately needs.