What Notre-Dame means to the French – and why tourists will keep coming to Paris

Anthony Peregrine
The famous cathedral before this week's fire - Westend61 / Werner Dieterich (Westend61 / Werner Dieterich (Photographer) - [None]

A while ago, feeling a little frazzled after a rare late night, I went for an evening of sacred music at Notre-Dame, which yesterday was gutted by fire.

The 17th-century music was of a discordant, tuneless purity which, in films, announces the ravaging of nunneries – and would, on Monday evening, have been perfect accompaniment for the terrible power of the flames. One was aware, initially, only of the hardness of the seat. But gradually the sound swelled to fill the vast space, taking hold of me and generating a bracing beauty which spoke of the pain and complexities of faith.

And somehow it also summed up the challenging grandeur of Notre-Dame itself. The great 13th-century façade allows US tourists to use the word “awesome” correctly, which is unusual. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the reality invariably surpasses your memory. Coming upon it constitutes one of the greatest corner-turnings on earth. Were you teetering on the brink, this soaring frontage would tip you over into belief.

But, well, I may not be quite alone in considering the back view less stupendous, with its mess of buttresses and spidery spires. And, though we all know that Gothic is the art of light, the immense interior rises (or, rather, rose) to billow with gloom through which shufflers of all nations – up to 50,000 on busy days – dragged their feet. Though undoubtedly “awesome” also, the inside, in short, didn’t match the majesty of the façade. Nor could one see the real treasures – crown of thorns, splinter of the real cross, nail from the cross – except on special occasions. I always sought the spot by the main Virgin statue – on the right of the nave – where, on Christmas Day 1886 sculptor Paul Cladel underwent a sudden conversion. It seemed to anchor the cathedral in a graspable reality, both spiritual and human.

The challenge posed by Notre-Dame doesn’t stop at its physical characteristics. First and foremost, it is a cathedral - maybe the most recognisable in the world – underlining the central importance of Christian heritage to French life (and of French life to Christian heritage). From the second century AD, France has an unbroken record of fidelity to the faith, earning the tag “the eldest daughter of the church”. The strength of this element in French history is testified by the virulence of those anti-clericals who have long opposed it. No similar conflict emerges from Britain’s past.

Notre-Dame on Tuesday morning Credit: GETTY

But the church also has a key role in French literary matters. It was the extraordinary popularity of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame in the 1830s – of Esmerelda, Quasimodo (fiction’s most celebrated deformed bell-ringer) and the rest - which saved the edifice from those who would demolish it, and urged its restoration. I can think of no other novel which has pulled off such a trick.

Both culturally and politically, too, Notre-Dame has been at the heart of French affairs. Napoleon was consecrated emperor therein in 1804. Restoration monarchs were in and out of the place. It was there that de Gaulle celebrated the liberation of Paris, and Paris celebrated the memory of de Gaulle  25 years later. Also the memories of Presidents Pompidou and Mitterrand. Since the 1905 separation of church and state in France, Notre-Dame has – surprisingly perhaps – belonged to the state rather than the church (long story). It is also from a spot, Point Zero, just in front of the cathedral that distances along most French A-roads are measured.

Both culturally and politically, Notre-Dame has been at the heart of French affairs Credit: GETTY

The church, thus, constitutes a constant at the centre of French life and of its self-image – encapsulating all the fragile grandeur which characterises the country. The grandeur is visible, palpable and much-vaunted by the French who have never quite accustomed themselves to the fact that they are no longer, Louis-XIV-style, kings of the world. Even the most iconoclastic of Frenchmen hold hard to their heritage – for, if they don’t like the content, they certainly favour the structures which underline national eminence.

The flipside of fragility is equally obvious, with seemingly unmovable millennial monarchy overthrown in, effectively, a few months. And, yesterday, much of Notre-Dame reduced to ashes in hours. Talk about a symbol. This morning (Tuesday), French tourist bosses were saying that this would play badly abroad, especially in the current climate. International TV stations have been showing the world how the entirely witless gilets jaunes have created havoc not in distant dumpster zones but right in the heart of the capital, along the Champs Elysées and around the Arc de Triomphe.

"France has a terrific record of putting itself back together again" Credit: AFP/GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT

Then, last night, the same stations beamed images of apparent impotence as Parisian firefighters struggled with enormous valour but limited effectiveness against the conflagration. The fear is, it seems, that the world will think France unruly and useless, and so stay away.

I’m not so sure. For a start, the impotence is by no means absolute. France has a terrific record of putting itself back together again, not least after two world wars. And even in the matter of churches. The magnificent Gothic cathedral of Reims was 85-per-cent destroyed during the Great War and has been restored with spectacular success. You’d now never know that it had been hit hundreds of times. There’s little doubt that the same will be true for Notre-Dame, the more so that there exists a great well of international sympathie both for the cathedral and for the French. Money is already rolling in from all over.

And fellow-feeling has resurfaced. Get beyond the perceived arrogance and all the other clichés and we have, lately, been with them through the aftermath of terrorist outrages in Nice, at the Bataclan and at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. We’ll be with them over Notre-Dame – turning up out of solidarity but also (we’re all human) to see the devastation. And, when we’ve seen it, we might go to be awestruck by the Sainte Chapelle, whose wondrous stained glass windows make it the most sublime church in Paris. It’s just down the road.

Watching the terrible fire at Notre-Dame, many have recalled their experiences of visiting the medieval monument. Do you have a photo of Notre-Dame you would like to share? Send your pictures to yourstory@telegraph.co.uk, along with the best memories from your trip, for the chance to be featured in an online gallery.