My stomach dropped when I saw that Notre Dame was in flames.
I called my landlady. We sat in front of the TV for hours, watching the situation become more and more hopeless.
There was an initial panic when it was not yet known whether the fire had been set intentionally or whether the church would survive. The world watched as Paris came to a stop. American tourists began drafting their five-paragraph essays ostensibly about Notre Dame, but also letting people know they’d been to Paris. When the spire fell into the fiery abyss below, all felt lost.
People went to bed while the church was still engulfed in flames, not knowing what news they’d find when they woke up. In the morning, Notre Dame stood, battered and damaged, but much less hopeless than it had seemed the night before. And life went on. There was no one to blame, no cause, no victims; so, what was there to do but carry on? There was no melodrama—the likes of which I’ve seen from Americans on social media. It’s easy to understand why Americans are so upset: Paris is an aspirational place that you might be lucky to visit once, and you’d cherish those memories—or mourn the ones you’ll never have. In France, despite a narrative from the U.S. that said otherwise, everything was back on a steady course to normalcy, though people were certainly shaken.
And then the donations came flooding in. Almost instantly. Every billionaire wanted to be known in the history books as the person who saved the famous Notre Dame (because being known in the history books for improving living conditions for the poor is, perhaps, less appealing, less glamorous to these wealthy patrons). Criticism has been leveled at the millionaires and billionaires who have pledged obscene amounts of money, as well as the government for proving that it can act quickly if the situation merits it. After all, the rural poor don’t bring in many tourism dollars.
It took hours to raise a billion dollars for the cathedral. Donations poured in so quickly that it was hard not to draw an immediate comparison between the rush to repair a historic church and the absolute silence when it comes to helping real human issues that have been widely publicized and brought to the forefront by the recent protests. There’s a sense of injustice at the sudden rush to restore a building (a historic, important, treasured building) when there has been inaction on the part of the government and wealthy citizens in times of human crisis and in the aftermath and midst of colonialism. On that front, France has been extensively criticized for destroying equally important cultural landmarks in Africa with no remorse or consideration.
It was hard for the French people, protesting for the better part of six months (though the gilets jaunes have somewhat lost their bite in recent months, there are still protests each Saturday in major cities). It reaffirmed the idea that yes, someone could do something about these issues they’ve been campaigning for, and very quickly at that, but these are simply not issues that the rich care about.
It’s not that the French don’t care about Notre Dame—they felt the possibility of its loss deeply. It’s that this fire and the subsequent funding came after months of unrest and inaction, and the response from the government and the super-wealthy sounds quite a lot like “Let them eat cake.”
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