France Looks Ahead After The Devastating Fire At Notre Dame

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 10:13 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So today marks a week since Notre Dame caught fire, and the French cultural minister now says that the cathedral has been stabilized. That fire provided a brief respite for embattled French President Emmanuel Macron as the country came together in shock and worry. But that unity was short-lived. And NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that Macron must now address the deep divisions in French society.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Notre Dame's displaced congregations celebrated Easter Mass across the Seine river in the much younger 16th-century church of Saint-Eustache, where Louis XIV took his first communion. Outside the church, 23-year-old Parisian Baya Massamba-Wa (ph) says the last week has been crazy.

BAYA MASSAMBA-WA: There is, like, a chaotic atmosphere, you know? I think that it's very strange right now because, you know, it's the Easter celebration. And with Notre Dame burning, the yellow vest movement - it's really difficult to know what is our place now in France. We don't know how to react, really, as young people.

BEARDSLEY: The young IT specialist says she's doing fine but France seems to be tearing apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BEARDSLEY: Yellow vest protesters took to the streets for a 23rd Saturday in a row. In clashes around Paris' Place de la Republique, the protesters threw rocks and bottles. And police responded with tear gas. There were injuries and some 200 arrests. Yellow vester Cedric Demesse (ph) says they feel bad about Notre Dame, but it has nothing to do with their predicament.

CEDRIC DEMESSE: (Through interpreter) We've been in the streets fighting for purchasing power and better lives for five months. And all our president has done is fire on his people for five months. But we will never give up, whether it takes six months, a year or five years.

BEARDSLEY: Demesse says it's pretty disgusting that Notre Dame got a billion euros in just one day while France leaves its homeless in the streets and yellow vesters haven't gotten a penny for their problems. He's talking about the fact that French billionaires like Louis Vuitton's Bernard Arnault quickly donated millions to rebuild the cathedral. That's ignited a raging debate over wealth, inequality and tax deductions, says Christophe Barbier, editorialist with L'Express magazine.

CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: Now there is $1 billion to rebuild. It is wonderful. But we are in France. So immediately, some people say - what? One billion for a church and no money for the poor? There's a problem. And France is this schizophrenic country, able to be in a very strong moment around Notre Dame and to give money and, the morning after (laughter), able to have a battle around the money for Notre Dame.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTS)

UNIDENTIFIED YELLOW VEST PROTESTERS: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: Saturday's demonstrations turned particularly nasty when some yellow vest demonstrators screamed at police, go kill yourself. The chant was considered below the belt, as 28 police officers have actually committed suicide since the beginning of the year. No one knows why, but stress and overwork are thought to be contributing factors.

Macron is set to address the yellow vest crisis on Thursday in a crucial speech he was supposed to give the night Notre Dame caught fire. Barbier says, so far, Macron has enacted policies to help businesses and those who are already successful. But now he must try to help the working poor.

BARBIER: Emmanuel Macron has to find real solutions for the French people in the next weeks before the summer. If he fails, I think September, October will be a very tough period with a new fire, not in Notre Dame but in all the country.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "LOST SYMPHONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.