I wonder about the symbolic significance of the Notre-Dame fire, coming as it did in the sixth month of gilets jaunes riots, and delaying as it did Macron’s coming announcement that the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (Ena) will be closed.
But first let’s remind ourselves that, in European history, whatever happens in France doesn’t just happen in France. For France is in many ways the reference country of Western civilisation, one destined to act as a perennial schoolmistress.
The lessons she teaches are both in how to do things and also in how not to do them. At the time Notre-Dame was built, it was the former.
The European genius was then manifested mainly through theology and its lapidary expression in church architecture. That was when France told the world to sit up and listen.
In the twelfth century the scholastic theologian Pierre Abélard shone at the school of Notre-Dame, roughly on the site of the current cathedral. In the next century, as the cathedral was going up, the University of Paris was unquestionably the cultural centre of the world, with Albertus Magnus paving the way for Thomas Aquinas.
And then sublime cathedrals sprouted, like the giant trees of history’s greatest civilisation. Their saplings were then transplanted all over Europe – for example, the same team that built Sens cathedral then moved on to give Canterbury cathedral its current shape.
Fast-forward five centuries, and the lessons France taught Europe became toxic. That egregious misnomer, the Enlightenment, began to inject venom into the West’s veins, of the slow-acting kind that poisons by gradual corruption.
The country itself became a picture of political instability, producing since then 17 different constitutions – to Britain’s one. Only corruption remained stable, with the bogus notion of liberté, egalité, fraternité dripping in drop by drop at an accelerating speed.
Remove Christianity from such desiderata, and they become bacteria spreading the contagion of nihilism. In due course, 80 per cent of the magnificent Romanesque and Gothic churches fell to wanton destruction or scornful neglect; the great University of Paris has become a hatchery of vacuous pseuds, homespun revolutionaries and Third World butchers.
France has now added a new function to her didacticism, that of a mirror into which other European countries can look and see themselves. The mirror is concave and convex, so that not every reflection is perfectly accurate. But all are close enough.
Hence the symbolic significance of the Notre-Dame fire, and the very real significance of the mooted plans for its restoration.
Apparently, the overall stewardship of the project has been entrusted to a five-star general, whom my tennis partner, himself a general, describes as a salaud (bastard). But what matters here isn’t so much the good general’s moral character as the vandalism already planned higher up the chain of command.
Worryingly, Manny Macron has vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame “even more beautifully”. Now neither the French nor anyone else have managed to produce anything even remotely as beautiful as Notre-Dame in the 850 years elapsing since the cathedral was completed.
Hence Manny’s undertaking to improve on the work of medieval architects within five years sounds ominous, especially since he also promised to consider a “contemporary architectural gesture”.
Allow me to translate: what’s being considered is yet another act of vandalism, akin to those decapitated statues on the cathedral’s façade, the work of newly enlightened and liberated savages. Or, for a more up-to-date example, look at the glorious Louvre courtyard disfigured by that awful pyramid, a monument to the hubristic vandalism of modern architects.
The prospect of aesthetic sabotage has even excited Lord Foster, and one would think he has perpetrated enough architectural monstrosities in his 83 years. “The spire is an interesting challenge,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to create something which is of our age.”
Like topping the cathedral with a glass dome? Just guessing. (For whatever little it’s worth, my own preference for the spire is no spire: I never saw what that 19th century structure added to the two magnificent towers.)
The fire also elicited an emotional response from the rioters who’ve been turning Paris and other major cities into hell for some six months now. But their emotions are negative.
“I’m not crying for stones,” said one comely gilet jaune. “I’m crying for people who are poor and hungry and don’t have anywhere to live.”
She and so many others feel that the billion euros pledged for the reconstruction of one of the world’s greatest treasures yanks bread out of the mouths of the hungry. That money, they scream, should be used to ease poverty instead.
Yet none of the billion will come from the state treasury. The money has been pledged by private firms and individuals, who ought to be able to decide how best to dispose of their wealth.
This shows that the riots have little to do with higher taxes on fuel and rubbish disposal. And even Macron’s resignation seems to be only a slogan reflecting a more profound yearning.
The rioters – and millions of their sympathisers – don’t just want a different version of Manny Macron in power, nor for that matter just lower taxes for themselves and punitive taxes for les riches. They ache to implode the whole political and social system.
The chickens hatched by decades of systematic political and cultural corruption have come to roost. Socialist politicians (which is to say politicians) have systematically nurtured for their electoral gain a sense of mass entitlement, inevitably accompanied by envy and pent-up resentment.
Now resentment refuses to stay pent-up – it’s ready to splash out.
At the beginning of his presidency, Manny, who has a good head for numbers if for nothing else, did his sums and calculated that the wealth tax and other anti-business millstones were pulling the economy down to the bottom.
However, when he tried to introduce rather timid reforms aimed at alleviating the problem, he acquired the reputation of a stooge to the rich. The suitably corrupted masses don’t care about improving the economy if that also means greater profits for les riches. (French is actually the only language in which the word ‘boss’, patron, has pejorative connotations.)
They won’t be mollified by arithmetic; the brewing social and cultural revolution can only be stopped by effective counterrevolution. However, the classes that could conceivably provide counterrevolutionary leaders are extinct; they too have been corrupted, if in different ways.
Manny, who has grandiose ideas far above his intellectual station, doesn’t realise that his willingness to consider a vandalising gesture in the reconstruction of Notre-Dame has exactly the same roots as the gilets jaunes’ more visible vandalism in France’s streets.
He himself is a suited and booted specimen of the same species, which he has further proved by his intention to shut down Ena, the finishing school of France’s administrative elite with strict selection criteria.
Even though they are prepared to compromise on the liberté and fraternité, the masses are braying for more égalité, and Manny’s genetic makeup prevents him from resisting in a resolute and principled way.
“If we want to build a society of equal opportunity and national excellence,” goes Manny’s leaked speech that has been delayed by the fire, “we must… change the system of training, selection and career development by suppressing Ena and several other institutions.”
Manny doesn’t realise that ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘national excellence’ are oxymoronic. That’s why he wants to sacrifice France’s grandes écoles at the altar of egalitarianism consecrated by the mob – driving the ablest youths out of French universities and out of the country (a process that’s already under way).
Before we sneer at France’s troubles in the good British tradition, let’s remind ourselves of two literary references: one to John Donne’s bell that also tolls for us, the other to Nikolai Gogol’s character who says: “Who are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!”
And then of course there’s that Shakespearean cauldron that keeps bubbling – and not just in France.