What the Notre Dame fire can tell us about the separation of church and state

The establishment of France as a secular state was supposed to put an end to the politicisation and weaponisation of religion. Kevin Childs believes it’s done nothing of the sort. And now the burning of one of France’s most famous religious monuments is likely to reopen old wounds

Wednesday 01 May 2019 11:28
Nine centuries of history came crashing down in just over an hour on Monday
Nine centuries of history came crashing down in just over an hour on Monday

Paris was burning, or so it seemed. Images of Notre Dame with flames leaping up its twin towers, its old spire crashing down, molten lead dropping, the night sky lit up and the sonorous bells of Saint Sulpice tolling out the apparent death of an architectural icon raced round the world in seconds via social media, registering our horror and fascination through a billion clicks.

Cathedrals, it seems, are made of highly combustible materials. But I expect the conflagration will not just be a matter of a building on fire. Smouldering beneath has been a century-long conflict between church and state in France, which the inevitable blame game will almost certainly reignite. What exactly led to the near catastrophic burning of one of France’s most enduring and popular national monuments?

In a report in 2017 on the parlous state of the fabric decay at Notre Dame, one government official was quoted as saying, “France has thousands of monuments”, suggesting that Paris’s cathedral was not the most pressing case for restoration, “It will not fall down.” Those words will no doubt come back to haunt that unnamed official. They are, in any case, redolent of a sort of laissez-faire attitude towards monuments, and religious monuments in particular.

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