Notre-Dame fire: What the cathedral means to the French

By Henri Astier
BBC News

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Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Watching the cathedral go up in flames is deeply upsetting for the locals

No other site represents France quite like Notre-Dame.

Its main rival as a national symbol, the Eiffel Tower, is little more than a century old. Notre-Dame has stood tall above Paris since the 1200s.

It has given its name to one of the country's literary masterpieces. Victor Hugo's novel Hunchback of Notre-Dame is known to the French simply as Notre Dame de Paris.

The last time the cathedral suffered major damage was during the French Revolution, when statues of saints were hacked by anti-clerical hotheads. The building survived the 1871 Commune uprising, as well as two world wars, largely unscathed.

It is impossible to overstate how shocking it is to watch such an enduring embodiment of our country burn.

Locals are not famous for their sunny disposition, but few can walk along the banks of the Seine in the central part of the capital without feeling their spirits rise at the majestic bulk of Notre-Dame.

It is one of the few sights sure to make a Parisian feel good about living there.

Media caption,
The major operation to try to save the building

Like all cherished places everywhere, it is not one residents visit very often. In the three decades I spent in my native city, I can't have been inside Notre-Dame more than three or four times - and then only with foreign visitors.

There are many of those. The cathedral is not just the most popular tourist site in Western Europe. Eight centuries after its completion, it is also still a place of worship - about 2,000 services are held there every year.

But it is also much more than a religious site. President Emmanuel Macron has expressed the shock of a "whole nation" at the fire. As Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said, Notre Dame is "part of our common heritage".

Many of those looking on as flames engulf the building are in tears. Their dismay is shared by believers and non-believers alike in a nation where faith has long ceased to be a binding force.

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