Just before the announcement to evacuate, I sat in the Notre Dame, struck again by its beauty. The mass taking place was reverential, and the singing echoed around the building in that wonderful way it always does in old churches.
Tourists were moving around taking pictures, so struck by the grandeur of the place they had possibly not noticed the signs banning photography – they were making noise, but trying not to. Hours later, that sacred atmosphere I had found inside the cathedral had been forced outside by fire.
There were thousands gathered by the nearby station. Some were singing. Some seemed shell-shocked. Some cried. Although some continued to drink, eat and laugh in Parisian bars that night, I saw with my own eyes that many people were devastated by what had happened.
I think this response reveals uncomfortable truths about what our culture values and what it does not. The Notre Dame’s appeal is in its heritage and history. I too am utterly in awe of the fact that generation after generation has preserved, expanded and protected the cathedral and its treasures for hundreds of years.
But France’s ability to do so is a privilege it has denied others. If you stroll further along the bank of the Seine, you will come to the Musée du Quai Branly, which is dedicated to the study, preservation and promotion of non-European arts and civilisations. After 126 years, France’s president Emmanuel Macron has just ordered that 26 pieces in the museum looted during the colonial era be returned to Benin.
I understand why some are grieving the damage to the Notre Dame so heavily, but I also know that not everyone can afford this sentimentality.
Other countries are still campaigning for the return of some of their most precious artefacts which were looted during the colonial era. Nigeria, where I originate from, is one of them. For the most part, these countries’ demands have not yet been met. Their efforts to preserve their artefacts are not so different from what the Paris fire service was doing that night. But culturally, that issue is interpreted very differently.
There are also those who live in and around Paris who cannot afford this kind of sentimentality. The Notre Dame can be saved at any cost it seems, but not them. On a taxi ride through Paris’s “banlieues” (loosely translated as the ghetto) today, I saw villages of tents where homeless people live on the ring roads.
In my work with children from some of the poorer areas outside Paris, there was a little boy in my class who was full of joy because he was finally moving out of his mouldy social housing. The other children in the class who weren’t as lucky said nothing. The recent gilet jaunes protests are a testament to the fact that some feel they have been left behind. Descriptions of the Notre Dame as a symbol of national unity thoughtlessly excludes and marginalises them.