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Two centuries on the bells of Notre Dame ring again on 850th birthday


A sound not heard since the late 18th century pealed tunefully, and movingly, over central Paris at the weekend.

To celebrate its 850th birthday, Notre Dame Cathedral has been presented with new bells, resembling those melted down and made into canons during the French Revolution in the 1790s.

The new bells rang out for the first time on Saturday evening as a crowd of thousands – mostly conservative, well-heeled and middle-aged – crushed into the square in front of the cathedral to watch and listen.

The bells were marvellous: sweet and deep and mellow. But the crowd was strangely discordant. Angry squabbles broke out because the square was too packed and people could not move around. A large section of the crowd booed and whistled at the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, who is Socialist and openly gay. They also booed the Socialist culture minister, Aurélie Fillipetti.

I asked the person next to me – a conservative-looking woman in her fifties – why she was booing on such a supposedly joyous occasion. “Maybe it’s not a nice thing to do but maybe they [Delanoe and Fillipeti] are not nice,” she said.

The crowd was large – much larger than expected – because many people had come into town for a demonstration against a law allowing gay marriage which has been adopted by the lower chamber of parliament and will go to the Senate for examination and approval in April. The presence of anti-gay protesters may have partly have explained the booing of Mr Delanoe. But it does not explain it entirely.

The conservative-Catholic middle classes of France are in a fractious mood. The pealing of the new bells was supposed to be a celebration of the cathedral and of the city. However, a section  of the crowd could not prevent themselves from turning the occasion into a tribal  demonstration of discontents of the present.

The pealing of the bells was a triumphant echo of  a rich past that spawned the likes of fictional bell-ringer Quasimodo. It also suggested that France is again in an angry, divided, if not quite revolutionary mood.