Twenty-four hours after the blaze at Notre-Dame last April 15 was brought under control, the cause of the fire was officially announced by the Élysée. In the professed view of the French government, the disaster could only have been an accident. The possibility of a deliberate attack upon the cathedral was dismissed.
Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, President of Debout la France, was skeptical from the start. The government’s certainty, he suggested, did not appear to agree with its warning that the inquest into the fire’s origin would be long and difficult. Four months later, as reported in a three-part feature printed in Valeurs Actuelles (22 August 2019), Dupont-Aignan was persisting in his skepticism in the face of condemnation by the political class. “I have informed myself of the business, I have discussed it with the connaisseurs of Notre-Dame: it would require a sequence of exceptional circumstances to set fire to such a frame [as Notre Dame’s]. I do not say that an accident is impossible, but I claim the right to investigate.”
Dupont-Aignan’s skepticism is supported by the fact that on April 25 the brigade criminelle was granted access to the scene to investigate the cathedral. As Valeurs notes, the famous brigade is generally employed in cases involving homicides, kidnappings for ransom, and so on—personal crimes of the sort Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret was charged with solving. Why then was it brought in to handle a case involving the accidental near-destruction of Notre-Dame?
The firefighters affirm as one man that the fire destroyed, among so many other things, every trace of its causation. Their testimony allowed the Procurator of France to reaffirm the official claim, while adding that “nothing permits the accreditation of the hypothesis of a criminal origin.” Investigators, who went to work almost as soon as the fire department arrived at the scene of the inferno, have therefore conducted their inquiries in other directions. Perhaps an electrical malfunction was at fault. Perhaps the workmen on the scaffolding surrounding the cathedral had been smoking, in defiance of safety rules. Nine cigarette butts discarded by workers carried traces of their DNA, but four others went unaccounted for.
Valeurs noted with surprise that the investigation discounted the possibility of an “imprudent” visitor, although climbing onto the roof of the building is a favorite game among young thrill seekers and a police source disclosed that on the morning of the fire at least one unidentified person had been spotted on the scaffolding after it had been closed for the day. An anonymous informer has claimed that Notre-Dame is “well-known” to grimpeurs like himself, adding that he had proposed to his fiancée on the cathedral roof in 2013, she in a long gown and he in a smoking jacket, where they ate dinner accompanied by two climbing friends disguised as valets.
Lastly, le Canard enchainé has revealed that the Minister of Culture, before the fire, had considerably reduced the number of night guards and other protective agents present at any one time around the cathedral.
Inevitably, in the absence of conclusive findings rumors of plots and complots abound. According to one of these the gilets jaunes set the fire to distract the country from President Macron’s scheduled address to the nation that evening. Another, started by Serbian nationalists, claims that the tragedy was divinely inspired to punish the French for their celebration of Armistice Day the year before. A third, circulating among French Muslims, views it as Allah’s revenge for their supposed mistreatment in France. A final one, with oddly supernatural overtones, results from an optical illusion produced by the statue surmounting the pinion of the North Transept above the rosace, imagined by some spectators to be a person surveying the blaze.
Governments of every kind are notorious for playing a close hand when revealing information regarding major disasters. A lesser or greater degree of opacity is thus expected of them following these. Nevertheless, the French government seems to have been suspiciously quick, perhaps eager, to deny the possibility that a crime of arson was responsible for the near loss of Notre-Dame de Paris. Since governments are also constitutionally inclined to imagine the worst-case scenario arising from any catastrophe and protect themselves proactively from its effects, it is reasonable to consider what that scenario might be in instance of Notre-Dame.
The answer is what must have sprung to many French minds as news of the event spread on the evening of April 15—the day after Palm Sunday—very much including the minds of French officialdom. It is, of course, that the fire was set by a Muslim saboteur, or saboteurs, after closing hours. The obvious motive would have been, beyond the destruction of the cathedral itself, the transformation of Holy Week into a week of spiritual pain, dismay, and humiliation throughout Christendom. The disaster would have been perceived objectively as a blasphemous crime, and symbolically as a defeat for Christianity at the hands of Islam.
Thus there is believable motive here. The Muslim banlieues of Paris and other French cities are increasingly resentful of what they regard as degrading treatment by the native population, while the French people more and more resent immigration to France, Muslim immigration especially. President Emanuel Macron has just announced that his government will give new and serious attention to the subject. Le Figaro, the conservative paper, regularly prints lengthy essays about immigration and the destructive effects it has upon the historic French culture and the French way of life. Clearly, the issue of immigration is coming to a head in France.
Should the official investigation uncover convincing evidence to support the hypothesis of Muslim responsibility for the burning of Notre-Dame, the French government would face its gravest decision since the Algerian War: whether to make its findings public, or not. In the case that it did, the result would be the greatest social and political crisis since that war. In the case that it didn’t, and the facts came out anyway, the same result would ensue. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that on the evening of April 15 the government was apparently so eager to jump to a happy conclusion.
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