A year after the inferno that ravaged Notre-Dame de Paris, the cathedral has been “put to sleep” with France under Covid-19 lockdown. The author of a book that was due to come out in time for the fire's anniversary reflects on the role the monument has played – and continues to play – in French history.
In the days, weeks and months following the Notre-Dame fire, France engaged in debate over the reconstruction: how long it would take, how much it would cost, where the money would come from, and what it would look like, especially the 19th century spire that fell into the fiery inferno.
Today France's focus is on the health and economic fallout of the coronavirus, which has shut down the country since 17 March, when the government implemented confinement measures, closing most businesses and keeping people indoors.
For French journalist Agnes Poirier, who goes back and forth between her home in Paris and the UK, the shift is all the more poignant, as she was expecting to mark the release of her book, Notre-Dame: The Soul of France, with a series of readings, literary festivals and presentations, running through the month of October.
All these events have been cancelled.
(This interview has been edited for clarity, and first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast.)
RFI: The English edition of your book came out at the beginning of April (the French publisher has delayed release until next year). What is it like to have a book released during a global pandemic and lockdown?
Agnes Poirier: There are more pressing issues than the release of a book. Of course, it represents six months of my time.
I have had some wonderful reviews, which makes me feel a little better. But it would be so wonderful to have readers, of course! Because of the lockdown, which has shut down bookshops, it is difficult to find the book unless you seek it out deliberately online.
RFI: A year ago, the fire drew worldwide attention. Today the world's attention is on the coronavirus. How relevant does the reconstruction of Notre-Dame feel today?
AP: Notre-Dame is not in a different place; we are, because of the crisis. Like the rest of us, she's under lockdown.
Just a day after the confinement measures were announced in France, Jean Louis Georgelin, the general overseeing the rescue and reconstruction operation, sent most of the workers home. He used a lovely expression, he said 'we're going to have to put Notre-Dame to sleep'.
This is striking because they were just days from starting the most difficult and perilous operation on Notre-Dame, which is the removal of the 500 tonnes of scaffolding that had melted during the fire.
RFI: A year ago, there were debates over the reconstruction, and an urgency to get it done within five years. Today it is being put to sleep. Does this slow down the process of figuring out how to rebuild?
AP: Like the rest of our lives, this works on two levels. On the one hand it is a time for reflection, and I think that's a good thing. Certainly it is a good thing in the consideration of what are we going to do with the spire, which is the most controversial issue.
But on the other hand, life should restart as soon as possible, in general and on the site, because we need the cathedral to be really safe, consolidated and stabilised.
RFI: You were not planning on writing a book about Notre-Dame until the fire. It is part reportage about the night of the fire, and the aftermath, and part history of the cathedral throughout the centuries. How did it come about?
AP: I had just come back from London to be in Paris for the address of president Macron, who was supposed to give a big speech about how to take on the Yellow Vest protests. And right in front of my eyes, Notre-Dame started burning.
Throughout the evening, and for days after, the same question was put to me by people very far away, who were saying 'we are terribly upset, tell us why?'
They were questions I was also asking myself, and I'm French, Parisian. What we felt was difficult to put into words.
Of course, it is one of the great landmarks of French culture, a feat of architecture, which has been with us for nine centuries. But it was more than that.
RFI: And when you started asking the question you turned to history…
AP: I discovered so many stories that I had either forgotten, or I never knew. For instance, if you go back to its construction, unlike many other Gothic cathedrals of the time, Notre-Dame was financed by the people.
Maurice de Sully was the bishop of Paris who had the idea of building Notre-Dame. He was also the son of farmers. Very often members of the high clergy came from the aristocracy, and that was not his case.
The bourgeoisie of Paris also put in a lot of money to finance the construction, of course, and the king. It was a collective action.
This surprised me, because if you compare it to other cathedrals at the time, it wasn't like this at all.
RFI: What were other moments in the cathedral's history?
AP: I could talk about the Revolution. We know about Bastille Day, 14 July 1789 and the storming of the Bastille prison. But do we know, or do we remember, that a day later the revolutionaries flocked to Notre-Dame for a mass of celebration?
After 4 August 1789, the night of the abolition of privileges, hundreds of French deputies flocked again for a mass celebration at Notre-Dame. This is also where the National Assembly gathered to nationalise the assets of the church, in a sort of impudent way.
Notre-Dame became a laboratory of ideas and revolutionary experimentation. Of course, then there was the Terror. But even then, Notre-Dame was not closed. It was never closed in the course of its 850-year history, until the fire last year.
RFI: You have to wonder that if the fire had not shut down the cathedral last year, maybe the coronavirus would have done it this year, as the confinement measures limit religious gatherings…
AP: And yet, on Good Friday there was a mass at Notre-Dame, and it was extremely moving. There was the Archbishop of Paris and some music.
RFI: You titled your book Notre-Dame: The soul of France. Did you find that it is the history that makes it so important? Or its existence throughout the centuries?
AP: Notre-Dame was always at the centre of big things.
It is where France reconciled with itself, as when Henry IV, during the wars of religion, goes to win over the hearts of Paris, because without Paris he couldn't be the king of France.
It is also the setting where Victor Hugo decided to set his Hunchback of Notre-Dame. And thanks to that novel, he raised awareness about the historic monuments of France, and a law was passed for the preservation and restoration of French architectural patrimony.
More recently, Charles de Gaulle, on the 26 August 1944, the day after he liberated Paris, walked from the Champs Élysées to Notre-Dame, where there were snipers. We still don't know whether there were German snipers or collaborators, or even communists, who tried to assassinate him.
He walked on. Everybody was squatting and trying to hide behind chairs and pillars, and he just walked straight to the altar for the mass.
Notre-Dame is where France licked its wounds after tragic periods of its history, or celebrated glorious events.
RFI: And today?
AP: You could argue there's an urgency, even more so because of the virus, to see it rebuilt, especially for believers, but even for non-believers. It would be a sign of hope, that we all recover, and she does too.
It might also impact how we decide, collectively, to rebuild the spire. All these the fantastical and extravagant ideas about giving her a touch of 21st century genius perhaps will just calm down, because all we want is to have her back.
This interview was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.