The Passions of France And the fire of Notre-Dame
Monday, April 15th 2019, was the third day of the Holy Week for Catholic Christians, the week that commemorates the Passion of Jesus Christ preceding His crucifixion and resurrection. The day followed another weekend of protests in France, when 30,000 people demonstrated in several major French cities against President Emmanuel Macron. It is therefore a most unfortunate coincidence that, on that day, one of France’s most recognisable monuments, the 850-year old Cathedral of Notre-Dame, caught fire and was nearly destroyed before the fire was eventually put out some 15 hours later. The cathedral’s spire was completely wrecked by the flames, and the building suffered notable structural damage; some of the artefacts stored within it were touched by fire and smoke to varying degrees. The incident took France and the world at large by storm, drawing strong reactions from the general public as well as from celebrities and world leaders. It did not take long for some of France’s wealthiest personalities to pledge vast sums to the reconstruction of the cathedral, while president Macron promised to rebuild the cathedral within five years.
An iconic landmark
When one thinks about Notre-Dame, one inevitably thinks about Paris and France, and a quick mental reference to Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” is nigh-inevitable. However, Notre-Dame is also a token of contradiction: it is a major religious establishment located in one of Europe’s most secular states, and the major events it has borne witness to during its over eight centuries of history illustrate the cultural changes that occurred throughout Europe. It was perhaps the fifth religious construction on that site that replaced an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. Then, following its completion in 1145, it first distinguished itself as a centre of academic excellence, as was the case with many other similar establishments in the early Middle Ages. In the centuries that followed, it was the site where King Henry VI was crowned king of France, where several important political marriages were celebrated (such as between Mary, Queen of Scots and Francis II of France), and also where the memorial services of a few major French historical figures, such as Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterand, were held.
The fire of Notre-Dame struck a particularly sensitive chord: it occurred in a time of divisiveness and social unrest in France, with over twenty consecutive weekends of unrelenting protests against President Macron’s Administration.
On the other hand, it was touched by the turmoil of war and conflict. It endured attacks from Huguenot Protestants during the French Wars of Religion; it was further neglected during the Enlightenment, its scholarly prestige having ironically been tarnished by an aura of superstition from a bygone era. The lowest point was arguably its occupation during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, when it was turned into a Temple of Reason and a focus of revolutionary fervour at abolishing the old ways. It then enjoyed a return to the forefront of public opinion, only to be once more faced with the hardships of war – this time two devastating World Wars. Yet, Notre-Dame always endured and outlived its challenges, just as France weathered its historical trials. The significance of the cathedral consists in more than just its religious significance. It is more than just a historical monument; it is a testament to France’s resilience in the face of hardship, and a centrepiece of European history and culture.
This is why the fire of Notre-Dame struck a particularly sensitive chord: it occurred in a time of divisiveness and social unrest in France, with over twenty consecutive weekends of unrelenting protests against President Macron’s Administration. The latter made a promise to rebuild Notre-Dame as fast as possible, with an estimated deadline five years from now. Yet, for all the support – political, financial and otherwise – that was pledged to the reconstruction of the cathedral, it was not without its critics. Many have decried the initiative as hypocritical, nonsensical and superficial, drawing attention to how quickly resources were pooled for the purpose of restoring the building after businesses received substantial tax cuts under the present Administration. Furthermore, despite appeals to peace and to the cessation of strife, the generous donations have added fuel to the fire, and the now famous yellow vest-clad protesters have again marched on as they clamoured for higher taxes on the rich so as to yield the necessary resources required to address the greater, direr needs of the French people.
Macron has requested for all parties to focus their attention on the incident and encouraged unity; this was, as we can see, an attempt from Macron to appeal to a common denominator for all French people and hopefully bring an end to the hostilities that have increased fragmentation and tensions in French society.
When we analyse the issue in the larger context of France’s turbulences, it is interesting to note that both parties have attempted to play up the unfortunate event in the public sphere for political gain. Macron has requested for all parties to focus their attention on the incident and encouraged unity; this was, as we can see, an attempt from Macron to appeal to a common denominator for all French people and hopefully bring an end to the hostilities that have increased fragmentation and tensions in French society. On the other hand, one of the heaviest accusations typically levelled against Macron and his camp is a nigh-complete detachment from and ignorance of the reality of the needs and troubles of the people he represents. As such, his opponents have used the event to further underscore these accusations of ineptitude. Not only that, but one of the many grievances of the protesters is the growing economic and social inequality between the rich and the poor. This was defined more sharply in 2017, when the long-standing solidarity tax on wealth was recanted, and it struck a very deep chord in 2018 once an increase in fuel taxes was announced.
The big picture
To fully understand the issue, we need to keep in mind two main historical characteristics of French politics:
- social protection and welfare have traditionally been very well represented in the French political landscape;
- popular uprisings have also been an important part of French history.
In some ways, France can be compared and contrasted with the United States: whereas the latter was shaped by the values of capitalism with its focus on free markets, competition and the primacy of individual responsibility, France was influenced to a much larger extent by left-wing politics with its promises of social justice and economic welfare. The US fought for its independence from the British Empire and won it, thus making self-determination and risk-taking an important part of the American mindset, which also explains why, at first, the US wished to avoid fighting wars overseas – an expression of its right to follow its own path and not get dragged in other nations’ conflicts. France, on the other hand, was shaped to a crucial degree by an imperialistic foreign policy and popular uprisings, such as the famous French Revolution of 1789 or the July Revolution from July 26 to 29, 1830, thus cementing the people’s right and power to overthrow unfit political leadership. The divergent paths of the almost concurrent French and American revolutions must also be taken into account.
Macron was hoping to appeal to the French people’s deep underlying appreciation for a colossal monument to French identity, yet this only served to feed the impression that he is more focused on abstract issues and unconcerned by his electorate’s more urgent needs.
Moreover, whereas the US – despite never establishing formal overseas colonies – rapidly developed into a superpower with a huge political, economic and cultural clout, France had to undergo the transition from the world’s most powerful empire to one that saw its former colonies break off one by one and, with them, a significant loss of geostrategic leverage, as well as a jarring setback to its perceived cultural prestige. Adding to that the trauma of two World Wars, a series of post-war riots (e.g. in 1968) and an aging population, it is perhaps no coincidence that France, like many other powerful European nations in the aftermath of the Second World War, has developed a marked aversion to risk and a preference for security. Lastly, whereas the American dream of prosperity has been typically centred on entrepreneurship, fearlessness and unyielding perseverance in the face of adversity, its French analogue has been more strongly defined by attaining a stable occupation, decent social standing and a steady source of income.
This explains to a large degree the differences between the American and (Western) European attitudes on taxation, economic equality and poverty. In several European countries, poverty is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed by appropriate social policies and government intervention, whilst in the US, a sizable segment of the population attaches a moral nuance to poverty, viewing it as the results of one’s own personal faults and not a consequence of events beyond the stretch of one’s efforts. Thus, whereas taxation in Western and Northern Europe is generally not likely to generate huge public outcry if there is reason to believe that taxpayers will see it returned in the form of improved public services, in the US it is a very sensitive topic, and a solidarity tax on wealth such as the one that was in effect in France until very recently would have been anathema in the United States.
Moreover, France experienced a period of over thirty years of strong economic development with the state playing a direct role in guiding the economy, a policy instated by Charles de Gaulle which came to be known as dirigisme (from French “diriger”, meaning “to direct, guide”). Even though the policy was subsequently abandoned in favour of liberalisation of the economy, the state has continued to be an important economic player via high spending and regulations. Thus, the French workforce looks to the government to provide that which they consider that free market cannot: security, an acceptable standard of living and, from their point of view, fair opportunities. Emmanuel Macron’s business-oriented policies have been interpreted in an increasingly negative light, especially when France is faced with its current economic woes. According to Cédric Durand, Macron is seen as unaware and/or uninterested in the plight of the common people, focusing his attention on the financial community, angering the rest of the population. It therefore becomes easier to understand whence the ire of the protesters came from.
Vision and villainy
When we try to view the picture through the lens of economic theory as well as historical precedents, it becomes apparent that the goal of Emmanuel Macron’s policies is to revitalise the private sector, attract larger foreign investors and restore the competitiveness of the French economy in the long run. Yet, when we look through the eyes of the ordinary working-class citizens, we would see that Macron’s major policies have bettered the lot of businesses through tax cuts and more flexible regulations advantageous to a globally connected moneyed class while producing few visible, tangible benefits for the majority of the population. The French working class feels outraged that this Administration, upon which it bestowed power shunning established parties and resisting the siren call of the Marine Le Pen and her full-throated economic nationalism, not only did not bring it any notable changes for the better economically-speaking, but seemingly catered more to the particular needs of a small segment of the population. On top of that, made it easier for employers to fire employees if need be and was also intent on enacting policies that would have increased gas taxes – in other words, these measures would have made life more expensive and uncertain for the average French worker in relation to the very companies that have benefitted from tax cuts and more relaxed regulations. We can therefore understand one of the main difficulties faced by Macron’s cabinet: its clumsy communication of a big-picture vision to the French population, a considerable portion of which struggles to make ends meet (almost 14% of the populace live below the poverty line).
Emmanuel Macron’s business-oriented policies have been interpreted in an increasingly negative light, especially when France is faced with its current economic woes. According to Cédric Durand, Macron is seen as unaware and/or uninterested in the plight of the common people, focusing his attention on the financial community, angering the rest of the population
On top of that, Foreign Policy’s Stephen Paduano highlights a dramatic decrease in Emmanuel Macron’s popularity following several incidents in which he brusquely brushed off complaints from an unemployed worker about not being able to find a job (with youth unemployment standing at 21% in 2018) or shooting down a teenager who approached him in a more youthful manner. Thus, Paduano surmises that the President’s problem is presenting a rather ambitious, future-oriented reform agenda with little indication as to how present-day realities are to be taken care of and which take several incremental steps to successfully implement. With this context in mind, we can reconsider the Notre-Dame situation in a new light: Macron was hoping to appeal to the French people’s deep underlying appreciation for a colossal monument to French identity, yet this only served to feed the impression that he is more focused on abstract issues and unconcerned by his electorate’s more urgent needs. Likewise, the wealthy donors – natural and legal persons alike – might have hoped to improve their image in the eyes of France’s citizens; however, their easy virtue was construed as a waste of money which could have gone into public taxes to address public issues.
To conclude, at the moment it is irrelevant whether the protests that erupted in the wake of Macron’s statements and the publicised donations were the result of social engineering by the establishment’s detractors or a genuine symptom of an increasingly strong feeling shared by the majority of France’s population; the incident has been politicised nonetheless and, if anything, not in Macron’s favour. Still, his presidency and chance of being re-elected are not yet dangerously threatened. It is not enough to simply portray a politician in office as weak; only the gravest cases of corruption and/or incompetency can spur a population into voting for virtually anyone else. It is also necessary to produce a powerful enough challenger with a well-defined, realistic agenda that the voters could view as a believable alternative to the establishment. Secondly, even if Macron decides to stay the course and pursue his agenda, should he learn to better engage his electorate and either resolve some of the protesters’ key requests, find the middle way between his agenda and his citizens’ present concerns, or make good on enough of the more important promises he made before the end of his term, chances are he will maintain his credibility, and be awarded with a second term. Whatever the case, it is clear that Macron’s challenge is more than just rebuilding Notre-Dame; the real project he has undertaken and must live up to is that of rebuilding the French economy and infrastructure into modernity, as well as reshaping French mentalities in a more and more confusing and confounding world.