Macron Presides Over Rare Unity as Nation Grieves Notre Dame

(Bloomberg) -- French citizens joined global leaders to rally behind Emmanuel Macron in the aftermath of a fire that ravaged the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, giving the French President an opportunity to quell the political volatility that’s embroiled his government.

Macron urged haste Tuesday evening as he reiterated a vow to rebuild the 850-year-old Gothic monument, an issue that’s united the French population across the political spectrum, with national parties suspending their European election campaigns and leaders from around the globe lending their support.

“We will rebuild the Notre-Dame cathedral even more beautiful than it was,” Macron said in a televised address to the nation. “I want that to be finalized in five years. We can do it.”

The fire prompted the cancellation of a speech planned for Monday by the 41-year-old leader meant to allay the concerns of citizens angered over economic disparities and by a lack of trust in the political system. Macron has sought to move past months of protests by the Yellow Vests movement and bolster his popularity, which had taken a battering from a public perception that he’s out of touch and that his policies favor the rich.

“This is an opportunity for Macron to reach out to the opposition to create unity in a fractured, divided nation,” said Bruno Cautres, a politics professor at Sciences Po institute, who cycles past the landmark every morning. “He can’t be seen as using this moment of widespread grief, but at the same time, people will expect all politicians to start working together, first for Notre Dame and hopefully, beyond Notre Dame.”

The policy speech initially scheduled for Monday night is simply postponed, Macron said Tuesday.

“I will come back to you, as I pledged to do, in the coming days so that we can act collectively following our great debate,” he said. “But today is not the time.”

Vow to Rebuild

The fire raged for about 12 hours, taking with it about two-thirds of the roof and its spire, and at one point late Monday night even the stone structure of the monument was at risk. The cause of the fire is still unknown but Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said nothing indicates it was started deliberately. Paris prosecutors opened a non-criminal investigation, a common step in such a major incident.

Macron Presides Over Rare Unity as Nation Grieves Notre Dame

The entire structure was a half-hour away from collapsing before firemen prevented the blaze from engulfing the bell towers, according to Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez.

Culture Minister Franck Riester said major treasures such as the “Crown of Thorns” and Louis IX’s tunic were removed to City Hall, while other relics were taken to the Louvre. The altars weren’t burned but will be removed to be treated for smoke damage, while the rose windows appeared to have escaped major damage, he said.

Macron Presides Over Rare Unity as Nation Grieves Notre Dame

The initial budget to restore the cathedral before the fire was about 150 million euros ($170 million), and may need to be increased to at least 450 million euros now, according to Michel Picaud, president of the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Money has already started to arrive for a rebuilding that will take years if not decades. The Paris region has unblocked 10 million euros in emergency funding. The Pinault family of Gucci owner Kering SA announced it was giving 100 million euros and the Arnault family that controls LVMH said it pledged 200 million euros.

Macron Presides Over Rare Unity as Nation Grieves Notre Dame

The fire comes a a little over a month before France is due to elect its members of the European Parliament. According to Ifop’s daily rolling poll, Macron’s La Republique en Marche! party and Marine Le Pen’s euro-skeptic National Rally are tied at 21.5 percent, with the Republicans in third place at 13 percent. In the latest Ipsos poll, Macron’s approval rating fell 1 point to 27 percent.

In his canceled speech, Macron had been expected to announce middle class income tax cuts, indexation of small pensions and the abolition of the elite ENA school for civil servants, in an effort to assuage grassroots discontent, French media reported.

In the week leading up to Monday, political leaders from opposition parties were on television saying Macron’s measures wouldn’t be up to the task, even without knowing what he was due to announce. Hours later they were all expressing their sadness at France’s incalculable artistic loss.

“For two years, all we’ve had are tortured words that go around in circles, and when we get to the finish line there’s nothing there,” Laurent Wauquiez, head of The Republicans, the largest opposition party in Parliament, said Sunday on BFM TV. Monday night he wrote on Twitter that “it’s a whole part of our history, of all of us, that burns tonight.” He canceled an EU election rally he was due to attend in the southern city of Nimes Tuesday night.

Macron Presides Over Rare Unity as Nation Grieves Notre Dame

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party and one of Macron’s most scathing critics, said “This building is like a member of our family. For at least 24 hours I can’t feel and act like a politician.”

May’s Misstep

Macron will have to walk a fine line, and tragic incidents throughout Europe have proven to be pitfalls for leaders who miscalculated the political severity of the events. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May had to admit that her initial handling of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 80 people in a London apartment block, was “not good enough” because she hadn’t met victims on her first visit.

Francois Hollande, who was president in 2015 when a terrorist rampage left 12 dead in France, saw his flagging popularity revive after the incident. Hollande oversaw a manhunt and brought international statesmen and millions of voters together in a show of political force, which earned him a temporary boost in his approval ratings.

Leaders from around the world expressed their solidarity with Paris, including Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Macron will speak later Tuesday with Pope Francis, after having spoken earlier with U.S. President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

A bell tolled at London’s Westminster Abbey on Tuesday evening, exactly 24 hours after the fire started, and Britain, which restored York Minster and Windsor Castle after major fires, offered to help with reconstruction.

“When it comes to the task of rebuilding, French craftsmen and women are among the finest in the world,” May said in a statement. “As they prepare to embark on this daunting task, we stand ready to offer any U.K. experience and expertise that could be helpful in the work that lies ahead.”

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, whose populist government has been at odds with Macron, reached across the political divide.

“A thought and a hug for the people of Paris,” Salvini wrote on Twitter. “From Italy, all of our friendship and all the help we can give.”

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