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'We Are The Guardians': After Notre Dame Fire, France Grieves With Renewed Sense Of Duty

A man watches the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral burn in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)
A man watches the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral burn in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron says he wants to see Notre Dame Cathedral rebuilt within five years, after the famed church burned before the world Monday.

Thousands of Parisians watched together on city streets as the flames consumed and eventually toppled Notre Dame’s spire. Its towers remain standing.

Philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Lévy says he spent the night doing what many other people in France and beyond were doing: grieving the cultural and spiritual loss.

“We stopped crying — I at least stopped crying — this morning when I was sure that the fire had been mastered. Till then, it was like each of us was wounded,” Lévy tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson. “This cathedral of Notre Dame, it’s not just a monument. It is the heart of Paris. It is the soul of France. It is a masterpiece of European civilization. It would have been a huge loss, impossible to repair, if it had been thoroughly destroyed.”

French officials say the most precious treasures kept inside Notre Dame have been saved. But UNESCO World Heritage officials say it’s too early to determine whether the Gothic cathedral’s famous rose windows — some of the largest in the world — are unscathed.

Lévy sees the fire’s aftermath as an important moment of reckoning and re-education in France, whose people, he says, have largely lost sight of the crucial work of safeguarding their country’s irreplaceable structures.

“This could happen again in all the monuments in Europe and in France if we don’t decide to consider these sort of architectural monuments as our most precious jewels, as treasures. And this is not the way we conceive them,” he says. “We are not conscious enough in France … of the spiritual prize, of the quantity of beauty embedded in these sorts of monuments.”

The French government must establish a clearer plan for stewardship of culturally important sites like Notre Dame as rebuilding gets underway, Lévy says.

“A great monument like Notre Dame is not just beautiful. It is a masterpiece of spirit, and we are the guardians of all of this,” he says. “We don’t own them, they are not given as a gift. No. We have to prevent them from dying. We have the duty, the sacred duty, of taking care. And this is what the French government will have to be conscious of.”

Julia Corcoran produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson started telling stories on the radio when he was a kid and hasn't stopped since.