The Politics of Notre-Dame: Playing with Fire

It's no wonder so many people across Europe and around the world felt shock and sorrow at images of Notre-Dame in flames. So many have been there. On an average day, 30,000 people step inside the cathedral to worship or soak in centuries of history. That's 14 million people a year. As French writer Bernard-Henri Levy wrote on Tuesday, Notre-Dame is "a treasure of civilization, for those who believe in heaven and for those who don't."

Of course, this loss is much more personal for citizens of France. Centuries ago, distances were calculated in many countries from "point zero," a marker embedded in a location that represents the heart of the nation. In France, point zero is found in the paving stones just outside the entrance to Notre-Dame. For many, Notre-Dame is the (still) beating heart of France.


It's inevitable that this fire, and reconstruction of the cathedral, will become a central reference point for French politics in the coming days and months, creating both risks and opportunities across the political spectrum.

Critics of President Emmanuel Macron call him aloof and imperious. But outside the cathedral on Monday, he spoke with credible emotion about Notre-Dame's importance for France and the urgent need to rebuild. Last night, he called for the nation to mobilize and rebuild the cathedral "even more beautifully" within 5 years, saying it was up to "up to us to transform this disaster into an opportunity to come together."

The fire ignited just hours before Macron was to address the nation on the recent wave of "gilets jaunes" protests across France and what they've taught him. He now has an opportunity to strike a more personal tone and rally public support for the government. Tuesday's speech was a step in that direction, but Macron must be careful in the coming week not to inject politics into a story that's deeply personal for many in France.

The "gilets jaunes," a diverse collection of people from all age groups and political backgrounds, have earned considerable public support with protests aimed at unresponsive government. But critics charge the movement has been hijacked by people more interested in inflicting property damage than in political change. The disaster at Notre-Dame may poison attitudes toward property destruction, at least for a while.

Finally, this disaster lands in the middle of an election campaign for the European Parliament, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, will look for every opportunity to draw votes from Macron and other opposition parties.

She may argue that the Notre-Dame fire is the predictable result of a negligent government that spends too much on immigrants and "European" projects while neglecting to protect symbols of the French nation.

Or, like Macron, she may find that using Notre-Dame to win votes is playing with fire.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.