In a country already set ablaze, and with flames still burning in the background, French president Emmanuel Macron made his intentions clear:
“We will rebuild… altogether… it is part of our French destiny… because that is what our history deserves.”
And in that somber moment, Macron reminded the world that hope always trumps despair, that the future can be bright, and that when we pull together, we can achieve monumental things. In this moment of crisis, he channeled the thinking of other leaders in times of crisis. Let’s take Lincoln, in his second state of the Union address:
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history… The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
… and, faced with crisis, he channeled JFK’s call for optimism:
.The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.
It was surprising to see the leader of a country that has often been seen as a country of nay-sayers, channel the optimistic and future-focused approach of American leaders of yesterday. Because we are talking about a significantly important catholic church, it is possible to think of this as a moment of rebirth, during a week when rebirth weights on the mind of many believers. But this moment, which was mistakenly algorithmically attached to 9/11 on YouTube, may also be seen as a bookend to an international time of fear and despair.
Let’s look at what that algorithm told us. Looking at the smoke and flames engulfing Notre Dame’s spire yesterday, it was hard not to be reminded of the putrid smoke coming out of the twin towers almost 2 decades ago. As a Frenchman living in New York, the parallels were striking, presenting two symbols on fire in different times: while the 9/11 attacks were set against a background of peace and prosperity, the Notre Dame fires come at a time of war and uncertainty.
While the twin towers attack represented a time of hatred and destruction which only led to fear and retribution, the instant reaction around Notre Dame seems to drive to something different, to a time of global unity and rebuilding.
If the 9/11 attack marks a sudden change in the trajectory of American hope (briefly punctuated by a return to older values under Barack Obama), the fire at Notre Dame may present a similar change in the French trajectory of despair, creating the kind of national unity not seen since the end of World War II.
The response by the international community to this tragedy also presents a window of hope for the world. In a time of despair of global warming, Brexit, and deep political divisions in America, the challenge president Macron has set for his country illustrates that there are still people who believe we can rebuild and make the world a better place. It creates a moment, not just for France, for all of us to re-evaluate the trajectory our leadership is taking us on and decide whether we are interested in succumbing to the weakness of fear or the values of hope.
Let us hope that leaders around the world take a time to pause, think about the events of the recent 24 hours and decide to take a course to will douse the fires that already exists in our world. Let us hope that this fire can be seen as a time for renewal, an that our children and generations to come can look at it not as a disaster born out of accident but as the time when the world decide to recommit to international partnership and solving big problems together.