The Notre Dame fire was tear-jerking. Lying at the very heart of Paris, the gutted-out grandiose cathedral remains a symbol of France’s deeply embedded Catholic roots and a symbol of French identity. The UNESCO-class gargoyle hostess is on par with the rest of our world’s shared cultural patrimony, amongst which feature the Ancient Cities of Palmyra and Aleppo in Europe’s back garden. These modern-day Syrian demolition sites don’t have the luxury of commercialised patronage, however, where the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, and even the Michelin man have given donations upwards of tens of millions of euros to Notre Dame’s reconstruction fund, all while the watchful sentinel – the Sheperd King of Rome! – sits atop his billions.
But Notre Dame didn’t just reveal the opportunist ego trips of French billionaires, but of the country’s own elitist president, Emmanuel Macron. Just like any French president over the past decade, Macron has tried to turn a public crisis in his favour. In what has been dubbed his ‘permanent election campaign’ in French political circles, Macron’s reaction to the Notre Dame fire contained as much political rhetoric as it did genuine sorrow for the partial-destruction of an unequivocally French landmark. This is important to consider as the ‘president of the rich’ continued to trail behind in public opinion according to a poll taken just days after the fire. At a 27% approval rating, it’s worthwhile considering what Macron has been up against and what he tried to address in his 16 April speech.
First thing’s first, last Monday’s speech was actually scheduled for Macron to present the findings of a deep French introspection. Sparked by the incessant yellow vests which have pitted Paris against Province (the rest of France), le Grand débat (the great debate) was launched by Macron in January to ostensibly lend an ear to the downtrodden French. The themes of the debate had been handpicked by the government, however, and were often binary in their questioning, leading to a general disenfranchisement with the top-down initiative and triggering a bottom-up, yellow vest-approved Vrai débat (true debate). In light of this prolonged crisis of legitimacy and with the outcome of the whole affair expected to fall on deaf ears, Macron welcomed the Notre Dame fire.
In the event, he addressed the nation and told them “It’s not yet the time [for the great debate].” The disaster took precedence as a momentous opportunity to bypass the genuine concerns of the French who have mobilised within their villages, towns and cities to express their grievances in a twenty-first century Cahier de doléances. Yes, Macron wants bygones to be bygones. So much so, he spoke of a supposedly inherent French “ability to mobilise, to unite, and to overcome” – presumably a double-entendre for wading through the civic shit storm as much as getting over the Paris-based fire. Beyond Macron’s flimsy analogy of the French as a nation of builders – pre-empting the recruitment of the French precariat to repair the boujee boutiques ruined by the yellow vests along the Champs-Élysées – he also considered Notre Dame to be a rallying point for the international community.
In the wake of the Notre Dame fire Macron claimed how the ordeal caught international attention and provoked sympathy from people across the world. Foreign leaders tweeted their condolences, notably Theresa May who had to accept Macron’s insistence on a shorter Brexit extension less than a week earlier. The phenomenon of reconciliation and profound sympathy with France around a common (Christian) tragedy has enabled Macron to briefly distract his French critics and European adversaries who consider him to be going too harsh on Brexit, and too bombastic in the pursuit of an EU with France at its helm.
Indeed, in the waning years of Merkel’s final term as Chancellor, it has been europhile firebrand Macron who has picked up the reins of the European project and who gallantly touts the benefits of an ever-closer Union. This has not been too successful, however, with Germany caught with its tail between its legs as its government must stare down the far-right as its official opposition, where Italy is run by populist clowns, and Britain is torn between whether it ever wanted to be in Europe in the first place! With the continent’s euroscepticism at the forefront of his thinking, Macron has his eyes fixed on his own brand of European populism for the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections: a ‘European renaissance’. Yet Macron has missed the beat again, failing to adopt the vernacular of the popular far-right, just as he has consciously failed to listen to his own people’s grievances.
In light of the Notre Dame fire Macron remains a fascinating case-study of Europeanism in practice. But Macron’s compunction to misinterpret what both the French and the Europeans want is a damning indictment of his elitist europhilia. This will have severe consequences as we enter the European Parliament election period: a popular referendum on the French president.