The profound emotion felt around the world upon seeing images of Notre-Dame in flames opens up a series of questions: Why was everyone so deeply moved? Why does Notre-Dame so clearly crystallise what our civilisation is about? What makes ‘Our Lady of Paris’ the soul of a nation and a symbol of human achievement? What is it that speaks so directly to us today?
In answer, Agnès Poirier turns to the defining moments in Notre-Dame’s history. Beginning with the laying of the corner stone in 1163, she recounts the conversion of Henri IV to Catholicism, the coronation of Napoleon, Victor Hugo’s 19th-century campaign to preserve the cathedral, Baron Haussmann’s clearing of the streets in front of it, the Liberation in 1944, the 1950s film of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, starring Gina Lollobrigida and Anthony Quinn, and the state funeral of Charles de Gaulle, before returning to the present. The conflict over Notre-Dame’s reconstruction promises to be fierce. Nothing short of a cultural war is already brewing between the wise and the daring, the sincere and the opportunist, historians and militants, the devout and secularists. It is here that Poirier reveals the deep malaise – gilet jaunes and all – at the heart of France.