Public response to Notre Dame fire is wrong, insensitive

An electrical fire tore through the historic Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15. The church was currently under construction and housed many artifacts (courtesy of Creative Commons).

France’s beloved Notre Dame Cathedral was partially destroyed in a fire on April 15. The loss has been devastating to not only the French people, but to the world as a whole.

Since then, nearly all social media platforms have been plastered with posts of people mourning the historic building and multiple billionaires have pledged money to see that the landmark is rebuilt. 

While there is no correct way to handle a catastrophe, public response to Notre Dame’s damage has been generally exploitative and shameful. 

As with any worldwide tragedy, the first mass reaction is typically a thread of “thoughts and prayers” shared on social media. Therefore, it’s no surprise people have taken to posting their personal photos in front of the cathedral with mournful and somber captions. 

There is nothing wrong with this type of response from the French people. No doubt, this is a deeply personal and intimate loss for them. An honored landmark of their country, and therefore a part of their national heritage, has been destroyed. If publicly sharing their memories in front of Notre Dame helps, then they have the right to do so. 

The issue arises, however, when tourists claim the same grief as the French people by sharing photos from a class trip or family vacation that occurred years ago. It is unfortunate that instead of treating France with compassion and sympathy, many people are exploiting this extremely emotional loss for likes or a “flashback Friday.” 

The personal loss of the Notre Dame Cathedral belongs to the French people first and foremost. Nevertheless, their response has not been perfect either.

Within hours of the fire starting, multiple French billionaires pledged over $112 million each for reconstruction, according to The Washington Post. 

It is a nice sentiment; rebuilding the cathedral and, by extension, rebuilding the French people. On the other hand, the yellow vest movement—which actively protests inequality in France—points out that those billionaires could easily spend that money in ways that more directly benefit the French people. 

“If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency,” head of the General Confederation of Labour Philippe Martinez said, according to The Washington Post. 

It comes down to how these billionaires want to help the French people. Of course, rebuilding a historic landmark is much simpler than actually addressing societal inequality, but it’s important to remember this doesn’t make the fire at Notre Dame more important than issues of societal inequality.

Unlike terrorist attacks and other fatal tragedies, it’s important to remember that Notre Dame, as important as it is, is only a building. 

“It’s not the same loss or the same anguish, because no one died,” French feminist and writer Caroline Fourest told The Washington Post. “But with Notre Dame, we were afraid of losing a part of the beauty that makes living in Paris so sweet. There’s a sadness there.”

France has lost a crucial piece of their history and culture. The people of France are entitled to mourn this, and the rest of the world needs to allow them to do so without trying to twist it and claim it as their own collective tragedy. 

At the same time, we all need to remember that Notre Dame is a building and not a life. The funds going toward its reconstruction could be utilized differently, in ways that are more widely impactful and helpful. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters here: the French people and their well-being.