“Notre Dame provides the French with evidence that their modern and secular republic has its foundations deeply rooted in the Middle Ages,” wrote British historian Tom Holland after the fire. “Notre Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is a monument as well to a specifically Christian past.”
Like Clovis, France’s youngest president desperately wants to unify his increasingly secular country. The enthusiasm that swept Macron into office in 2017 eroded over 2018 to an approval rating of 23 percent by the start of 2019. Last year’s proposed gas tax hike was the final straw for many, who hit the streets in yellow safety vests to protest Macron policies.
After blockading traffic circles in rural France, the Yellow Vests turned to Paris and other cities. As more protesters turned out in solidarity, the movement turned violent. Months of weekend demonstrations left popular shopping areas and streets in shambles, the worst civil unrest since 1968. Macron dropped the gas tax late last year, but the Yellow Vests showed no sign of stopping: They simply want Macron to leave office.
Most French aren’t protesting, but the Yellow Vests underscore the frustrations of France’s middle class who want to reinvigorate businesses and combat 10 percent unemployment. Macron’s efforts have left many frustrated and disillusioned.
Another social divide drawing attention in the wake of Notre Dame’s fire is attacks on churches, both evangelical and Catholic. More than 65 acts of vandalism against churches occurred in the first two months of 2019, according to the National Council of Evangelicals of France (CNEF).
In early March vandals broke into Hope and Life Evangelical Church near Bordeaux, stealing $12,000 worth of sound equipment. But theft wasn’t their only goal: They poured paint onto walls and chairs and into electronic equipment. “There was a will to defile and destroy, and to keep us from continuing our worship services,” said Pastor Joseph Miall.
In mid-March arsonists set fire to the entrance of Saint-Sulpice, a 17th-century Catholic church in Paris. Parishioners heard the flames and raised the alarm. No one was injured, but the fire destroyed the church’s historic doors.
Notre Dame also has been targeted. In 2016 three Muslim women attempted to blow up a car filled with gas canisters in the street next to Notre Dame. On April 12, three days before the fire, one of the women, 22-year-old Ines Madani, was sentenced to eight years in prison on other terror-related charges. The trial for the 2016 incident is scheduled to begin in September.
Before the Notre Dame fire, such attacks received little media coverage outside religious press. CNEF called for more government action, asking in a statement after the attack on the Hope and Life Church, “In the future will it be possible to worship God and to profess faith publicly in freedom and security in France?”
Sixty percent of French say they are Catholic, according to Pew Research Center, but only about 10 percent are practicing, and the French customarily don’t embrace public displays of religion. Recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have further eroded confidence and faith. The flames and smoke of Notre Dame, said Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, evoked feelings of grief and loss, “especially for Catholics, who saw in the destruction a metaphor for—or judgment of—the state of their church.”
In France, Christian Delphine Brabant said simply, “My country needs a revival.”