Notre Dame Is Setting Macron’s Agenda Ablaze

A national catastrophe is ruining the French president’s plans for a revival.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and French President Emmanuel Macron near the entrance of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris, as flames engulf its roof on April 15, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images)
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and French President Emmanuel Macron near the entrance of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris, as flames engulf its roof on April 15, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images)

One day, while visiting the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Victor Hugo discovered a Greek word, blackened with age, carved into the wall: ANÁΓKH, or fate. While Hugo was unable to find this grim graffiti again during his next visit, its import nevertheless remained indelible. Puzzling over “the tormented soul who left behind this stigma of misfortune,” Hugo wrote Notre Dame of Paris in 1831 by way of an answer.

Given events in France over the last several months, climaxing with last week’s fire at Notre Dame, few people are better placed to understand that tormented soul than French President Emmanuel Macron.

On Monday night, when flames engulfed the cathedral’s roof, it was not just the famous spire that collapsed. So, too, did the president’s painstakingly prepared plans. On that very same night, Macron was scheduled to speak on a subject that has consumed the nation’s attention since last November: the protest demonstrations led by the so-called gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. Yet, upon learning in the early evening that the conflagration threatened to consume the cathedral, Macron canceled his address. “Like all of my compatriots,” he tweeted, “I am heartbroken to see this part of us burn.”

Both literally and figuratively, fires had already been burning in France. During this winter of social and economic discontent, the yellow vest protests, which had begun as a popular and peaceful movement, crystalized into smaller and frequently violent confrontations between a persistent hard core of protesters and police forces. They have turned Paris into a stage for what, in the dismissive phrase of Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, has become a “ritual” of violence wreathed in the smoke of tear gas cannisters and flaming tires and barricades.

The French, however, are more conflicted than Castaner in their attitude toward the demonstrators. On the one hand, the clashes have tarnished the yellow vests’ brand. Last November, when the movement first burst on the scene, nearly three-quarters of the French public supported it. Yet as the violence has climbed, the public’s support has declined. But the polls cast a sharp and, for the government, disconcerting light on the nature of this decline. An Elabe poll from mid-March reveals that while only 24 percent of respondents support the movement, another 29 percent sympathize with its aims. No less unsettling for the government, while a vast majority (84 percent) of respondents condemn the movement’s use of violence, a just slightly smaller majority (74 percent) believes that social inequalities—the movement’s raison d’être—have worsened in France.

The persistence of the yellow vest demonstrations and the public’s sympathy for their aims eventually forced Macron into a corner. After two nationally televised speeches in December—one that offered a certain number of concessions, the other that proffered warnings against continued violence—both failed to quell the protests, Macron launched the so-called grand débat—a three-month-long series of debates, discussions, town halls, and talkfests whose purpose was to take the measure of the nation’s malaise and decide upon ways to alleviate it. In his own series of marathon meetings, sometimes as long as seven hours, with town mayors and managers, small business owners, and public intellectuals, Macron demonstrated a mastery of policy details and measure of physical stamina that were beyond doubt. The political commentator Thomas Legrand expressed the attitude of many colleagues when, after Macron’s first meeting, he declared that “whatever one might think of the president’s politics, [this] exercise in democracy was impressive and beneficial.”

But impressions alone were not enough. Would Macron’s unprecedented undertaking also be effective? Would it defuse the protests and dispel the malaise? Or, failing that, would the great debate at least persuade most of the public that the government was doing all it could to bridge the fractures dividing the country? If the nation’s future does not hang in the balance, Macron’s future clearly does. There is, as Prime Minister Édouard Philippe warned members of Macron’s ruling La Republique en Marche party, “a significant risk of disappointment.” Not only did Macron have to draw the right lessons from the great debate, but he also had to offer the right answers to an expectant electorate.

The rub, of course, is that the “rightness” of these answers needs to acknowledge both the legitimacy of the public’s frustrations and the reality of the state’s limitations. Moreover, Macron had already drawn certain red lines. For example, he refused to reinstate, despite the yellow vest demand, the wealth tax that he had abolished soon after taking office. Nor would he agree to another of their core demands: the creation of a citizens’ initiative referendum. The initiative would dictate that should a proposition pass a certain threshold of signatures, it would become law if passed in a general referendum. In the cases of both the wealth tax and citizen referendum, Macron sees a clear and present danger to his own presidency—and in the latter case, to the very institution of the presidency.

As a result, Macron’s scheduled address promised to be a high-wire act. Le Figaro warned that Macron’s presidency was “at stake,” Courrier International declared that he had “no margin of error,” and Le Dauphiné intoned that his “hour of truth” had arrived.

Yet, Notre Dame pulled the rug from under one and all. With a scorched and smoldering cathedral, what was meant to be the climax to the grand débat instead became, as the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné punned, the “Grand Dégât National” or Great National Ruin. Not only was much of the cathedral in ruins, but so too was the staging for Macron’s address. Not only could the president not control fate, but he could also not control his ministers and staff, who leaked the speech’s principal elements to the press. Some were fiscal, including a cut in the income tax for certain brackets; others were structural, including a cut in the number of parliamentary representatives; yet others were fiducial, including the promise not to close a single hospital or school during the remainder of Macron’s tenure; and finally, others were symbolic, most importantly the shutting down of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA).

The last move is a response to the nearly universal distrust or plain dislike among the French of their political and administrative elite. The training ground for this technocratic elite, widely perceived as utterly divorced from the realities of those they govern, is the ENA. Ironically, when Charles de Gaulle, as the head of France’s provisional government in 1945, created the ENA, he sought to base admission to the civil service on what, and not who, the applicant knew. But gradually, and perhaps inevitably, the system began to duplicate itself as the children of high-level managers in the public and private sectors entered the school in far greater numbers than those from more modest socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result, the énarques—the moniker given to ENA graduates—are slated to be the most prominent sacrifice in Macron’s effort to appease his disgruntled nation.

But Notre Dame—or perhaps ANÁΓKH, to be more precise—did not give Macron a break. In the immediate wake of the fire, Macron announced the cathedral would be rebuilt in five years. As if sparked by this daring promise, achievable only if new sources of funding were found, donations began to cascade into the coffers of organizations dedicated to the cathedral’s rebuilding. More than a billion euros have already been committed to Notre Dame’s reconstruction. This is both poignant, yet also problematic, especially for Macron. The biggest donations have come from the nation’s 1 percent, who have been the principal beneficiaries of Macron’s suppression of the wealth tax. Moreover, these donors will, in principal, enjoy substantial tax benefits.

Whether this will also benefit Macron, who has been lambasted by the yellow vests as the “president of the rich,” is less clear. But there are hopeful signs. Though his measures have been emptied of surprise and have yet to be officially confirmed, it appears they have won over a large majority of French voters. According to an Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll, three-quarters of respondents support Macron’s proposed changes in fiscal and structural matters. One discordant note, however—at least for the president—is that less than one-quarter support the continued suppression of the wealth tax.

These are encouraging numbers for Macron, but much remains to be done or undone. Late this week, the Elysée announced that the president would speak to the nation next Thursday. Many believe he will introduce one or two new surprises in this speech, if only to distinguish it from the earlier leaked speech. As to whether ANÁΓKH has any more surprises in store, all bets are off.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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