On the 15th of April 2019, the famous cathedral Notre Dame in Paris, France, caught fire. The aftermath of the event and the conversations that have arisen since then can be used as a case study for how this world values, prioritises and discusses news. Looking back at this week, I want to recall the digital discourses around the fire and demonstrate how a closer look at them shows the state of our current social, economic and political situation.
At 6:20 p.m. local time on Monday, 15th of April 2019, a fire alarm went off in Notre Dame. Security guards evacuated the cathedral, however there was no sign of a fire yet. 20 minutes later you could see the first flames coming out of the cathedral and, with these flames, the news started spreading. Luckily, no human beings were harmed and after nine hours of what seemed to be the entire western atmosphere holding its breath, the French police finally announced that the flames had been extinguished.
I woke up to my Facebook feed full of people sharing their thoughts about this tragedy. I scrolled past countless “my heart is broken” and “this is so sad, I am in tears” statuses and was spammed by hundreds of videos showing the Notre Dame on fire.
I have visited Paris and also Notre Dame a couple of times, so I too was a bit sad that this wonderful building was now destroyed. However, I would be lying if I said that I was devastated. In all honesty, I quickly carried on with my day and engaged with other news. It was this tweet that brought my attention back to the topic: BREAKING: CNN can now confirm the Notre Dame fire was caused by an act of terrorism. Tune in to CNN for more coverage.
Picture from http://www.observers.france24.com
Another terrorist attack hitting Paris? I immediately searched for more news and found tweets by FOX News that supported this headline. Digging deeper, it was not long until I found French Prosecutor Rémy Heitz’s statement saying that “nothing shows that it’s an intentional act,” and that the start of the fire was “likely accidental.” I was irritated that such fake tweets had made it into my feed because that means that people I know do not check where the news they share are coming from. What made it even worse was that once some (very) fake videos of the burning Notre Dame with an edited audio track shouting Allahu Akbar (Arabic for “God is great”) made its way to twitter, an anti-Muslim conspiracy was born.
So here are the first two lessons that the Notre Dame fire taught me about digital conversations:
1. People blindly trust the headlines that they read on social media without doing their research.
2. We, as a society, are so used to the ‘Muslim terrorist’ narrative that the media feeds us, that we readily buy into any anti-Muslim propaganda instead of questioning the legitimacy of some dodgy audio tracks and tweets that are easily faked. This “no surprise it was those Muslims” attitude proves that the media fails to label far-right terrorists as what they are: Terrorists. If we called all ‘terrorists’ terrorists, we would not assume that an act of (alleged) violence was by default commited by Muslims, simply because statistically they are not the most violent demographic/religion there is. This is a reminder that islamophobia is rife and the media is biased.
(Click here if you want to read more about fake news surrounding the Notre Dame incident)
I found the first tweets by people who were donating money to support the reconstruction of this ‘iconic symbol’ because of their memories of the ‘city of love’ or the postcards of Notre Dame that are stuck to their fridge. Being someone who is neither overly romantic nor develops a strong emotional bond with buildings, I did not understand why people felt the urge to donate. What really struck me was the news of two “heroic French men who helped save this globally beloved monument.” Within hours of the Notre Dame burning down, two of France’s wealthiest men – François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault – had pledged 300 million € for the restoration of the cathedral. Soon after these men – who are rumoured to be rivals – made their donations, another wealthy French family called Bettencourt-Meyer family donated yet another 200 million €.
So even before anybody could precisely estimate how much the entire restoration effort would cost the donations were already adding up to half a billion Euros.
Bernard Arnault is Europe’s wealthiest man and supposedly the fourth-richest human being in the world. François-Henri Pinault net worth lies at 30 billion €. The Bettencourt-Meyer family is a shareholder of L’Oreal and their net worth lies at about 53 billion €. All of those families are linked to luxury brands which are deeply connected with France, such as L’Oreal, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Moët Chandon, Bulgari and Balenciaga. While I do not know the exact motivation behind their ‘generous’ donations, François-Henri Pinault’s statement that “this tragedy affects all French People” seems like a spectacle motivated by prestige and marketing. I am sceptical of this ‘concern’ and willingness to ‘rescue’ a symbolic building that represents the ‘greatness of French history’ whilst also hoping that their names and brands will be immortalised as saviours of the nation.
Even though I prefer them donating their money rather than sitting on it, I find this scenario outraging for two reasons:
1. Studies from 2017 show that about 8.8 million French citizens live below the poverty line. Among those who struggle the most are single mothers and the elderly. However, even though these people are living in poverty, the French government tells them that there is simply not enough money to fix social inequalities. Meanwhile the super rich French families might even get a great tax break out of this, since charitable donations benefit from a 60 percent tax deduction in France. This shows that, instead of trying to close the growing gap between the very poor and the very rich, governments still provide the upper 1% with countless advantages. The Pinault family said that they renounce any tax advantage that this contribution might give them, but the Arnaults and Bettencourt-Meyers have been quiet about this issue.
2. Charitable acts are often used as PR strategies. As long as humanitarian or environmental crises are being tackled by such marketing stunts, I don’t complain about it. However, the Notre Dame incident did not harm any human beings nor is it an environmental issue. While we have so many real tragedies happening without live stream media coverage, people from all over the world are sending not only their thoughts and prayers, but also their money to Paris. The online magazine fluter shows that 880 million € were donated to Notre Dame in less than 48 hours. In contrast, Sea-Watch, an association which saves refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, was only able to get 1,6 million € in one year.
I could list way too many tragedies that are happening as I am writing this (such as the war in Yemen or the Rain Forest clearing or the emergence of slave markets in Libya), which need all the financial support they can get. As a society, we need to set our priorities straight, dedicate time to inform ourselves about serious situations and spread awareness so that millionaires such as the Arnaults and Bettencour-Meyers understand that if they want to donate, even if it is for publicity reasons only, these are the topics we really care and talk about.
By now fully invested in the Notre Dame donations, I decided to turn to my social media and ask the following questions on my insta story:
8 people answered this question with YES, 75 people said NO.
This is how they explained their answers:
“YES”: a) I did donate but I also donate for other charities.
b) I think it is nice that people want to rebuild a historical building.
c) I would like to donate but I do not have enough money.
“NO”: a) There are more important issues to talk about and spend money on.
b) It’s only a building I do not understand the whole fuzz.
c) Why would I donate money to the Catholic Church which is one of the richest institutions on this planet?
I found it interesting that not wanting to give money to the Catholic Church was one of the most common answers. Judging from these digital conversations, I realised that people are quick to formulate their opinions based on misconceptions. This is why: Since France prides itself on being supposedly the most secular country in the world, which strictly separates public interests and religion, one might assume that the Catholic Church will have to pay for the reconstruction. In reality, the French government is responsible for all churches that were built before 1905. The reasoning behind this stems from the French revolution which separated state and church and took away the church’s political power. Therefore, all big buildings belong to the French state and thus the state will have to pay for all costs of the reconstruction attempts.
While the pope was quick to send warm words and prayers to Paris, the Vatican never pays for such incidents. Many people believe that its estimated 10 – 15 billion € estate translates in some sort of responsibility and it has bee criticised before that especially non-famous churches in suburbs or rural areas need to raise money on their own if they want to renovate their buildings. Thus, if people did their research before getting involved in online debates, the digital discussion could have focused on the Catholic Church not using its wealth to save one of its monuments instead of simply shaking it off as “the church has enough money anyways”.
Of course there are also those who decided to give money. Especially in regards to non-French donators, we need to ask why they feel the need. Is it because France, as a result of carrying out its civilising mission when colonising the world alongside Britain, established itself as the mother of all nations, the role model for culture and language and nationalism? This colonial thought is still alive and well inside and outside of France, a country that has always projected its culture onto others under the mantle of universalism, liberté, égalité and fraternité, thereby creating the paradox of seemingly being all-inclusive and simultaneously superior. French culture is for everyone and so is French architecture (and donations for it). However, the French identity, that Notre Dame is claimed to be the symbol for, is exclusively white Christian French. Yet the world feels strongly connected to it.
While the century old history of Notre Dame is easily remembered and mourned, the history of looting artefacts from former colonies and (continuous) French imperialism are just as easily forgotten (read: silenced). For example, how many of these foreign donators are willing to pay for Palmyra, a historical site that was ruined by France before ISIS? People do not usually care to help another country rebuild their heritage, however France still is an imperial power, especially culturally. Notre Dame is not any Church, it is French, it is Catholic, it is built by and for white people. The world has for centuries been taught that this is the highest form of civilisation that we should all aspire to and it cares more about sustaining this symbol of white globality than sending money to the people in Mozambique (because what have they done for humanity, right?).
The same day that Notre Dame burned, so did the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam. When looking at articles about the mosque burning, the date is referred to as the same date as Notre Dame; when reading about Notre Dame, there is no mention about Al-Aqsa. The reason for this is the arrogant assumption that European news are world news and European losses are world losses, but when a mosque burns it’s a Muslim disaster. White symbolism and the illusion of whiteness as the default global culture and identity is a colonial remnant that we all need to unlearn and we should start by not donating our money to one of the richest countries in the world.
I urge those who donated to reassess their motivation. Why do you feel strongly about France and does French heritage really deserve your undivided attention?
By virtue of easy internet access, you can digitally engage with news from all over the world. Prioritising French news to this extent is a biased decision.
After reflecting on Notre Dame for a week, it is clear that aside from personal memories that one might associate with the cathedral, the digital discourses around the fire are shaped by uninformed and biased fake media that especially target and demonise Muslims. We see an emergence of questionable heroism that celebrates the winners of colonialism and capitalism and leaves poor people behind, through prioritising rich over poor and west over everyone else. Furthermore, this incident illustrates the hypocrisy of France’s supposed secularity and the continuation of colonial thinking across the world that sees France as a mother nation to look up to.
It is worth noting that most people grieve the loss of art more than the Christian heritage. Where is the humanity in giving money to rebuild a work of art instead of saving another human’s life (for example those who are still displaced two years after Grenfell burned, a building that unfortunately wasn’t as artistic as Notre Dame)?
European symbolism is still valued over non-white life, and unwarranted gestures by rich men silence the needs of poor people.
In light of the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday, 21th of April, which killed at least 321 people and left hundreds more injured, I am urging you to show the same kind of financial support (in case you donated for Notre Dame), compassion (in case you stated your condolences online) and interest. Furthermore, remember this post when observing the digital conversations discussing this heartbreaking incident.
Words by Hannah Wolny and Amuna Wagner
Layout by Hannah Wolny