Notre Dame: An Evolving Symbol Of France Is Bound To Live On

The events that have marked the 800-year history of the Notre Dame cathedral bear witness to the monument’s eternal meaning and national symbolism.

Notre Dame burning on April 15
Notre Dame burning on April 15
Xavier Kawa-Topor


PARIS — It is not only a monument that burned, it is Notre Dame de Paris. A major place of worship, a masterpiece of Gothic art and an eternal witness to the history of France was partially destroyed by fire through Monday night.

Renowned French historian Jacques Le Goff once noted that this wonder of the Middle Ages has traversed the long history of Paris, as it transformed repeatedly over the years, all the while preserving its defining social and symbolic characteristic: being a place of devotion and emotion for all. It is a statement that is truer than ever, as this very emotion, like the fire, has spread across the capital, throughout France and around the world.

"The cathedral seems eternal, and yet few buildings have been as subject to the changes of historical evolution as it has been," wrote Le Goff in his 2005 book Héros et merveilles du Moyen Age ("Heroes and Wonders of the Middle Ages'). In fact, the history of these buildings are often older than their stones, not only because they were often preceded by places of pagan worship, early Christian buildings or Romanesque churches on their very locations, but also because of the transformations, destruction and restorations that they have undergone.

Notre Dame is no exception to this rule. Its construction began in 1163, under Bishop Maurice de Sully, and spanned more than two centuries. It was initially part of the great period of Gothic cathedrals, between 1130 and 1280, at a time when, in French historian Georges Duby's own words, "the horizons of European civilization changed profoundly."

Notre Dame, circa 1860 — Photo: Edouard Baldus/David Hunter McAlpin Fund

Like its sisters in Chartres, Reims, Amiens or Troyes, the Parisian cathedral is not only the product of the economic and urban development of medieval France, it also testifies to the revaluation of religion during the Gregorian reform. Driven by a spiritual, economic and architectural momentum, ever taller and taller buildings were being built in the heart of cities, awe-inspiring in their size. The symbolic strength of the cathedral lies in its its inscription in time and space.

But the strengthening of royal power also explains this "time of the cathedrals." Le Goff explains that these "were linked to States and nations in the making. From being the monument of a city, the cathedral became the monument of a state. The great events that have marked the history of the cathedral over the past centuries bear witness to the monument's eternal and powerful national significance. After it was transformed into a temple of Reason in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the cathedral was, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, a venue for great ceremonies: Napoleon I's coronation in 1804, the celebration of the Liberation of Paris in 1944, the funerals of Presidents Adolphe Thiers, Sadi Carnot, Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand ... Eventually overshadowing the places where royal power was most sacred, like the cathedrals of Reims and Saint-Denis.

The symbol of French nationality and the most powerful attempt at unity.

This movement coincides with Romanticism, a great period of resurgence of the Middle Ages and its myths. The cathedral became one of the places of the romantic imagination, thanks in large part to Victor Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), in which the writer raises public awareness of the degraded state of the monument and creates a myth: From now on, the image of Notre Dame is inseparable from that of Esmeralda and Quasimodo. "How can we count our beautiful 13th-century churches?" said Jules Michelet, supposedly offended, in French History. "I meant to talk about Notre Dame de Paris. But someone has marked this monument with such a lion's claw that no one will dare touch it anymore. It is his thing now, it is his fief; the stronghold of Quasimodo. He built, next to the old cathedral, a cathedral of poetry, as firm as the foundations of the other, as high as its towers."

This mysticism developed in the wake of Victor Hugo, who associated the monument with the genius of the French people. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc — the great restorer of Notre Dame and builder of the cathedral's spire, destroyed by Monday night's fire — replied to Hugo in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française (1854): "The cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries are, in my opinion, the symbol of French nationality and the most powerful attempt at unity."

What remains of Notre Dame de Paris today? In view of all the treasures that were reduced to ashes, the material disaster is significant, irreversible. But the myth is greater still, as evidenced by the international outpouring of emotion. Yes, Notre Dame is that unique convergence of spirituality, history and imagination that belongs to everyone. It will continue to live through the centuries, even if it must be rebuilt piece by piece, like the ancient ship of Theseus.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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