PARIS — As Notre Dame burned and people around France and the world poured their hearts out online, Rokhaya Diallo, a host on BET France, decided not to share her story.
Diallo, who has written books on racism and multiculturalism, considers the cathedral to be her birthplace — she was born in the hospital next door. She’s often a lightning rod in French debates about race — she supports the right to wear the veil in public, and an outcry from right-leaning politicians forced her from a government panel in 2017 — and was worried that sharing her story could be walking into a trap.
“When you are a minority, I feel like you’re always asked to say that ‘I love France and I thank France for whatever happened to come to me.’ It’s something that is requested,” Diallo told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t take part in it because I didn’t want to be like the ‘model minority.’ ... I didn’t like the idea that you need to prove more than anyone else that you’re connected to France.”
Diallo’s worries proved well-founded, as the fire has added new fuel to long-running culture wars over French identity. The large donations for the government's reconstruction fund immediately pledged by France’s richest families made headlines around the world and inflamed the months-long Yellow Vest movement over economic inequality. But there was less international attention paid to the fact that some on the right also immediately proclaimed the fire as a reminder of France’s “Christian heritage,” a notion that has been used to marginalize the country’s Muslim minority and oppose LGBT rights.
Before the flames were out, far-right outlets were claiming that many Muslims celebrated the cathedral burning, and one mosque in Brittany was defaced following the fire. But divisive rhetoric quickly crossed into the mainstream. In France’s major right-leaning newspaper, Le Figaro, the anti-immigrant writer Éric Zemmour declared an individual’s personal reaction to the fire as a kind of loyalty test, writing, "Those who did not cry for the spire as it was burning were not French." Bishop Matthieu Rougé of the Paris suburb of Nanterre published a column titled “And France remembered it was Catholic” in which he said, “It is not for the Catholics to exploit this event but, for all the French citizens, to reclaim with serenity their founding history."
Jordan Bardella, who is the lead candidate of the far-right National Rally (until last year known as the National Front) in May elections for the European Union’s Parliament, picked up the drumbeat over the Easter weekend.
“In this context of ambient Christianophobia, do we [not] have the right to question the causes of the fire of #NotreDame?” he tweeted on Saturday, connecting the apparent accident to recent incidents of church vandalism some politicians blamed on “militant secularism.” That day he also gave a speech in which he said it was time to “stop this dictatorship of minorities that ruins the life of the silent majority.”
National Rally, which took a narrow lead in some election polls over the Easter weekend, has used rhetoric of secularism to justify banning the veil and other public expressions of Islam, including once organizing a protest of Muslims who were praying in the street because their mosque had been shuttered. Bardella proudly broadcast his faith on Sunday, tweeting, “What is happening in our country and around the world has at least one virtue: restoring meaning and vigor to our age-old traditions and to our Christian heritage. Happy Easter celebrations to all!”
France is famously secular, and observant Catholics make up a small minority — as little as just 1.8% of the French population is estimated to attend mass weekly. Muslims, who are estimated to account for around 10% of the population, are far more observant — about 25% reported regularly attending Friday prayers as of 2015.
“There is a French hypocrisy when it comes to French identity,” said Yasser Louati, cofounder of an NGO called the Justice and Freedoms for All Committee. “They will say it’s secular country but all religions are welcomed, et cetera, but when Muslims use that secular space to exist as Muslims, they are rejected. At the same time, when Catholics use it, they will say, ‘Oh well, the French Catholic Church has been here for much longer.’”
“Yeah,” he said, “but at some point, where do you draw the line?”
Last Saturday, days after a government fund to rebuild Notre Dame had raised nearly $1 billion, a couple dozen men stood in the sweltering sun in a Paris suburb asking passersby to drop euro coins into buckets to fund the building of new mosques.
They were outside France’s largest Muslim conference, held in Le Bourget, one of Paris’s many poor suburbs home to communities of immigrant descent. One group of fundraisers said they had been worshipping in basements for four years while trying to scrape together the money to build a mosque in another Paris suburb called Épinay-sur-Seine.
None of the men questioned the campaign to raise funds for Notre Dame, and the group running the conference, called Muslims of France, had announced a fundraising campaign of its own to contribute to reconstruction. “An exceptional [piece of] heritage of our country, Notre-Dame is one of the emblems of France,” the group said in a statement soliciting donations for the cathedral’s reconstruction. “Muslims of France renew the expression of their most fraternal feelings to all our Christian friends.”
One of the mosque fundraisers from Southwest France, who gave his name as Nasser, said local authorities had blocked his community from purchasing land for a mosque. He said he didn’t mind that the community didn’t get funding from the government, but "all we ask the state is that ... they don’t throw sticks in our wheels.”
France has been transformed since the days when its rules on religious property and secularism — laïcité — were first written in 1905. Many historic churches and cathedrals, like Notre Dame, have fallen into disrepair as the government and the church fought over who was responsible for their upkeep. The law means that there are now hundreds of government-owned Catholic churches standing empty, while there aren’t nearly enough mosques for the growing Muslim population. The Catholic Church is on life support in France — its decline accelerated by major abuse scandals — and many in France see Islam as the major threat to secularism.
The 1905 law establishing freedom of worship and separating church and state was written in broad language meant to apply to all faiths, but it was really intended to be a kind of final divorce settlement with the Catholic Church in which the state wanted to claim as much property as possible, historian Todd Shepard told BuzzFeed News. It cut off state funding for the salaries of priests and laid claim to all the property of the church that wasn’t deemed directly necessary for worship.
France was then a colonial power. Algeria had been under French rule since 1830 and was considered more like a full part of the French Republic. The law was originally intended to be applied in Muslim-majority Algeria as well, Shepard said, but it was never implemented. The salaries of imams also came from government funds, and French leaders feared cutting them off would lead to an independent clergy that could start fomenting discontent. So Algeria was never secularized.
“The goal was to control the mosques — through the clergy, not the space,” Shepard said.
But today, this law is contributing to a huge imbalance in the space available for worship. The French Interior Ministry estimated in 2017 that there is one church for every 275 French people who identify as Catholic, while there is one mosque for every 1,300 Muslims.
Some local authorities have found indirect ways to help ease the cost of building new mosques but local officials and communities have a history of blocking construction, and the French government has moved to cut off donations from foreign governments. There’s debate over whether to allow more direct government support for new mosques, but many Muslims also oppose this idea, fearing government money would also bring government control.
The French government is now the major custodian of the country’s historic Catholic buildings, while no mosque holds the same kind of national cultural significance. When the manager of the government's Notre Dame fund suggested this week that surplus funds might go to places of worship for other faiths, the far right was immediately up in arms. "So the money given for #NotreDame could end up being used for mosque renovations. Are you serious? It's a nightmare, you have a gift for ruining everything," tweeted Anaïs Lignier of Generation Identity, the French white nationalist group that received donations from the Christchurch mosque shooter.
Diallo, the BET host, said it saddened her to think that, if something were to happen to the Great Mosque of Paris — which was built in 1926 in recognition of Muslims from the French empire who died fighting for France in World War I — it wouldn’t be felt as a blow to France as a whole in the same way as a historic cathedral. She felt the vitriol directed at one student leader with a foreign-sounding name who tweeted dismissively about the Notre Dame fire was hypocritical, in a country where many defended the right to publish cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed as protected by the law of secularism. She also noted that a white student with a French-sounding name who also mocked the fire online did not get anywhere near the same amount of abuse for his comments.
“I think that people understand that we have this special care for churches.” Diallo said. “We still need to question the fact that I’ve seen people saying that [Notre Dame] is the heart of France, it's the French identity. ‘Yes, it’s part of the French identity, but how can you make people feel included if the general discourse is that?”
Amid the homages to Notre Dame’s significance as a national symbol that followed the fire, Catholic leaders began a campaign to win greater acknowledgment that the building first and foremost belonged to the Christian faithful.
Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit rebuked President Emmanuel Macron for not mentioning the Catholic community in a speech on the night after the fire.
“The word 'Catholic' is not a dirty word,” Aupetit told French radio the next morning. "It's still Catholics who give life to Notre Dame, which is not a museum!”
During his homily on Easter Sunday, Aupetit said that the most important thing saved from the fire was not the Gothic architecture, nor the golden relics amassed over centuries, but the wafers in the building awaiting use in communion.
It is “the body of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament, this crumb of bread that gives all meaning to the life of this splendid building,” Aupetit said.
When asked by BuzzFeed News about the fact that there was a government campaign to invest in rebuilding the cathedral at a time when there was a shortage of mosques, the archbishop denied that the Catholic Church had any special status.
“The state is simply renovating what it took. … We are not going to maintain what was taken from us,” Aupetit said. “One can’t just compare the religions, which are not in the same status or the same period of history…. One needs to know that, simply the Muslims have the right to [worship] spaces. It has to be seen how this can be done, but I think the state is thinking about that. Now, it seems natural to me that the state [would] maintain the buildings that it owns.”
He continued, “We have the same status as the other [faiths] — which is to say, if I build a church, it’s the Catholic Church that pays,” adding that in Nanterre, where he used to be bishop, the Catholic Church built two-thirds of its churches now in operation since 1905, “and I can tell you that it's very, very expensive.”
For the most part, said left-wing MP Daniéle Obono, most major political figures have been very careful not to inappropriately politicize the Notre Dame fire so far.
“Thankfully, it’s a minority trend,” Obono told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. But, she said, “I think some on the right, especially on the far right, may try to use it, this focus on the ‘Catholic roots of France.’”
In addition to questions of immigration and next month’s European elections, Obono said this rhetoric could increase when legislation is debated later this year to legalize assisted reproduction for single women and lesbians, complaining that Macron’s La République en marche (LREM) party delayed “this debate because they didn’t want the conservative Catholic movement … mobilized or to be mad against them.” The National Assembly’s leadership officially said the debate was delayed due to “overburdening of the parliamentary calendar."
Obono accused LREM of already pushing the boundaries of secularism in order to curry favor with Catholics. Macron took the unprecedented step of addressing a meeting of the French Catholic bishops’ conference last year, in which he paid tribute to the religious conviction that helped forge “the most indestructible links between the French nation and Catholicism” and said he felt a duty “in this moment of great social fragility” not to “let the confidence of Catholics in politicians and politics erode.”
LREM’s lead candidate for the European Parliament, Nathalie Loiseau, also took the unusual step of adding a church service to her official campaign schedule — and inviting the press to join her — during a visit to the heavily Catholic French island of Réunion, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
“It was a blatant attempt to pander to Catholic people,” Obono said. “If you had one Muslim candidate who had done the same, there would have been massive [outcry].”
Loiseau did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News, but she ultimately dropped the mass from her schedule in response to criticism.
The religious right was not much of a force in France’s recent politics until 2012, when a new group called La Manif pour tous (“The Protest for Everyone”) failed in its attempts to stop France from enacting marriage equality. It is now active in opposing the new assisted reproduction proposal, which it calls “assisted reproduction without a papa.”
The group’s leader, Ludovine de La Rochère, told BuzzFeed News this was out of concern for children’s well-being rather than religious conviction. However, de La Rochère said she hoped the Notre Dame fire might lead some people to renew their Catholic faith.
"I think that the de-Christianization of France — that a society without God — in the end loses itself, even loses reason," she said. “The absence of religion implies relativism, implies consumerism and individualism, and also the transhumanist perspective, which is to say: the view that man is imperfect and must be transformed, and therefore without limits.”
It’s not clear how powerful Notre Dame’s religious symbolism is to the broader French public. It has acquired a powerful secular significance, and many visitors are more eager to see the gargoyle that inspired Disney’s version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame as to see the relic said to be Jesus’s Crown of Thorns.
But comments from several bystanders who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the night of the fire suggest the incident has raised serious questions about religious identity for many French citizens.
As the flames towered above the cathedral, some people who gathered to watch across the river knelt on the curb to pray. One woman who gave her name as Anne-Laure told BuzzFeed News that Notre Dame is “the Christian and Catholic heart of the city — it’s its soul.” Another, who gave her name as Anne-Claire, said the cathedral is “an emblem of the faith, of Paris... And France is, despite everything, Catholic.” (Both women declined to give their last names.)
Frédéric Martel, a gay author in Paris whose most recent book is titled In the Closet of the Vatican, published a column reflecting on the fire to proclaim a kind of French “Catholic atheist” identity.
“We are all cultural Catholics,” Martel wrote. “It is obvious that the cathedral of Paris is Catholic,” he continued, but argued that it was built on top of an ancient Roman temple, making the building a kind of “a kind of symbolic millefeuilles that, from the start, tells of a history of France wider than solely Catholicism.” And though Notre Dame is used for Catholic worship, it belongs to France and “on all major occasions becomes a national symbol.”
Father Pierre Vivarès, the parish priest at the Church of St. Paul in the Marais, a historic center of Paris’s Jewish and gay communities, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News that since the French Revolution, “it’s like a game between the church and the state — they need us, we need them.”
France has to confront the reality that there are tens of thousands of French churches and “most of them are closed … either they are historical monuments and we have to save them. Or they are not ... and we will just destroy them.”
The question of Notre Dame’s reconstruction took on additional meaning in light of the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday that killed hundreds, Vivarès said. “The Christian faith is asking something to the world — are we allowed to be ourselves?” But, he continued, “there are a lot of black people, gay people, migrants, all communities who could be persecuted — [who are also asking], ‘Are we allowed to be ourselves?’
“More than one century of relationship between the church and the state collapsed with Notre Dame,” he said. As it is rebuilt, “we have to find a new way to live together, and a way where everybody will be respected.” ●