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Notre Dame Cathedral is a seminal touchstone of French history, art and culture, and seeing it sustain devastating damage in a huge fire on Monday sent shockwaves of grief throughout France and the world. Judy Woodruff talks to Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the U.S., about the structure’s role within French national identity and feeling as if a part of himself were burning.
And now more on what this means to the people of France.
We turn to the French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud.
Mr. Ambassador, what are you thinking tonight?
Well, you know, I was — myself, I was surprised by my own reaction, when looking at what was happening in Paris, because, suddenly, I realized that I was crying.
Suddenly, I have the feeling that a part of myself was burning. And all the other diplomats and employees of the embassy felt the same emotion. So you can guess that I'm sort of relieved to know that the main structure of the cathedral apparently has been saved.
Why does Notre Dame have such a connection to the people of France?
Well, actually, to be frank, I really don't know, because I pass by this church a lot of times, and I was looking at it and thinking it was great.
But it's when it was burning that, suddenly, I realized that, as I said, it was part of my national identity, part of my history. But as the president, your interlocutor was saying, it's certainly linked to the history, so many historical facts that happened in the church.
There was also literature with the very well — novel by Victor Hugo that all the children have been reading in France for a long time. But, obviously, it's part of our national identity.
And something you study as a child growing up in France.
You know, I read "Notre-Dame de Paris," the novel by Victor Hugo, but also the fact that, when de Gaulle entered the city just one day after the liberation, he went naturally to the cathedral to say thank you to God for the liberation of the country.
And all the bells of the cities were ringing. That's also part of our identity.
And I think of its role, Mr. Ambassador, throughout history.
Today, I know the historian Michael Beschloss tweeted a picture of American troops going through Paris, marching in front of Notre Dame at the time of liberation at the end of World War II. So I think of the role it's played in the history of your country over so many centuries.
And, you know, we have another experience of a major cathedral destroyed, which is the Cathedral of Reims, which is a cathedral where kings were crowned and which was destroyed by the German invaders by 1914. We rebuilt it.
And President Macron said today, you know, I think one hour ago, he said, we will rebuild it because the French demand it. And we're going to ask for the support, the aid of all the people throughout the world.
At a time when, I think, some people are looking at Europe, the meaning of Europe, the meaning of individual countries inside Europe, whether it's the European Union or any other connection, something like this, in a way, symbolizes the unity of that part of the world, doesn't it?
I was struck by the messages coming from all of Europe, coming also from the U.S., but coming especially from all the leaders of Europe, all the religious leaders of Europe, you know, really expressing their solidarity, their sadness, and saying that Notre Dame wasn't only a French masterpiece, but it was also a symbol of the European civilization.
How much does it matter? As you said, your President Macron has been just saying in the last few minutes that — quote — "We will rebuild."
How much does it matter that Notre Dame is rebuilt as much as it can be?
Well, it's also, I guess, a show of resilience.
I think we went through our hefty amount of problems, of crises, of invasion, of wars, but every time, you know, the French people have shown that they are resilient. So it has been destroyed. We can't let it — destroyed once more. We have to rebuild it.
And we know, for the Catholic Church, it is a huge symbol, but what we have been discussing is, it is a symbol that ties a country, a people together.
And it's also a symbol, because we are, you know, just beginning of the week which is the most sacred moment of the year for the Christians. So it's also a moment of deep emotion for all the Catholics.
And as — you know, as it has been told, I think that the Crown — the Holy Crown of Thorns of Jesus Christ, you know, which was the major relic of the church, has been — fortunately, has been preserved.
Well, so many of us weep in this country and around the world for your loss.
Ambassador Gerard Araud, thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
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