Grenfell and Notre-Dame: two fires with startlingly different responses

They raise the troubling question: do we care more about preserving historic buildings and artefacts than we do about helping underprivileged people rebuild lives?

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower disaster on June 14, 2017. Toby Melville / Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The fire that enveloped Notre-Dame raised a troubling question this week about another significant blaze with a very different public response.

Six months after the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June 2017, in which 72 people died and hundreds more who managed to escape lost their homes and all their possessions, public fundraising appeals on behalf of the survivors and the families of those who had died had managed to raise £26.5 million ($34.4m). Most was raised by local communities and British charities, including one fundraising appeal by the London Evening Standard newspaper. Divided between the hundreds of families affected, it meant each received, on average, a few thousand pounds.

Within hours of the Notre-Dame fire in Paris, in which no one died but the fabric of an iconic, part-medieval building was damaged, more than $1.1 billion had been pledged for its restoration and offers of help and further funding were flowing in from around the world. Billionaires and LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault and the L'Oreal beauty empire each promised $226m; many other individuals and companies also dug deep.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was one of the first world leaders to mourn the "heartrending" destruction of the Notre-Dame and offer help in rebuilding the cathedral. Yet when she visited the Grenfell site a day after the fire, she failed to meet any survivors. Nearly two years on, its burnt-out, hollow shell still stands as testament to the stark disparity of wealth in London's richest borough; the promised memorial has yet to materialise. As Yvette Williams from the Justice 4 Grenfell team wrote this week: "When our government shows more value and respect for a historic building in France than to its own citizens and bereaved families, something is seriously wrong."

Direct comparisons between the two events can, of course, be easily dismissed as invidious. But the vast disparity in the sums of money involved and the speed with which they were raised pose an uncomfortable question – one underscored by this week’s protests in Paris by residents concerned that the state could respond so effectively on behalf of a building while neglecting the plight of the city’s homeless.

People fix a banner that reads in French: "Notre-Dame is roofless, we too!" during a protest in front of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

It raises this troubling thought: do we care more about preserving historic buildings and artefacts than we do about helping underprivileged people rebuild lives shattered by events not only beyond their control, but also in which society was complicit through its negligence?

For Parisians and France, Paris is Notre-Dame. As one French journalist wrote last week, it was "impossible to overstate how shocking it is to watch such an enduring embodiment of our country burn".

Built between 1160 and 1260, Notre-Dame stands first and foremost as a symbol of Roman Catholicism, the predominant religion in France. Over the centuries, however, its symbolism has come to transcend its purely religious meaning.

The most visited site for tourists in western Europe, the great Gothic cathedral is, to the French, the symbolic heart not only of the city but of the entire nation.

By contrast, for more than 40 years, the unremarkable, brutalist-style facade of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower went unnoticed by the vast majority of Londoners. Built between 1972 and 1974 as council housing for those on low incomes and managed by the local authority, its 120 flats had, over time, become home to many who had fled their own countries and sought refuge and a fresh start in the UK.

By the time the fire broke out in the early hours of June 14, only seven white Britons were living in the neglected tower. The 19 nationalities it housed included people from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq – refugees not only from the travails blighting their own countries but ultimately, from the legacy of the British empire, whose rampant expansionism had helped sow the seeds of the disruption those lands continue to reap to this day.

Half of those who died had been in England only since the early 1990s. One of the first victims to be identified was 23-year-old Mohammed Alhajali, a refugee who had fled Syria with his brother Omar in 2014 and was studying civil engineering. They lived together on the 14th floor of the tower. They were separated in the confusion of that dreadful night and only Omar survived.

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters spray water onto the Grenfell Tower block which was destroyed in a disastrous fire, in north Kensington, West London, Britain June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

As the death toll grew and the names of the dead emerged – Ibrahim, Alsanousi, Khalloufi, Hamdan, Belkadi, El Wahabi, Aziz, Neda, Begum, Jafari – it became clear that Grenfell was a paradigm of the many miseries of the modern world.

In the aftermath, firefighters said had it not been for Ramadan, with most of the building's many Muslim occupants still awake after iftar, far more people would probably have died.

It might not have registered in the national consciousness but for the British, Grenfell Tower possessed a symbolism as powerful and significant as that of Notre-Dame for the French, only one freighted with negative connotations. That symbolism was etched into the very name of the tower, which few in the surrounding area and almost certainly none of those who lived there would have known was named after one of Britain’s 19th century warriors of empire.

Field Marshal Francis Grenfell did the bloody work of the British empire in South Africa, Egypt and Sudan, earning praise in his grateful homeland for his victory at the Battle of Toski in 1889, at which he crushed the revolt against British rule in Sudan led by the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah.

Grenfell’s reputation as a hero of empire was commemorated first as a street name and then, five decades after his death in 1925, as the name of a building that would come to house many refugees from the consequences of that empire – including, by a tragic twist of fate, two women from Sudan who died in the blaze.

No one can doubt the importance of national historic buildings, not only as revenue-earning tourist attractions but also as symbols of nationhood. But what price that nationhood if it permits affection for objects of stone and wood to take precedence over concern for the lives of our fellow human beings?

The vast bulk of Notre-Dame was saved by the firefighters. Many of its treasures were rescued and its medieval roof and wooden spire, along with many of the other architectural flourishes added in the 19th century, will doubtless be replicated flawlessly. Indeed, as French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged, within five years the cathedral will be rebuilt “even more beautifully”.

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, April 15, 2019, with the Eiffel Tower behind, left, flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that destroyed its spire and its roof but spared its twin medieval bell towers, and prompted a frantic rescue effort to save its most precious artefacts.  The recent devastating Notre Dame fire in Paris was a warning bell that all of Europe needs to hear, since so many monuments and palaces across the continent are in need of better upkeep according to European officials.  “We are so used to our outstanding cultural heritage in Europe that we tend to forget that it needs constant care and attention,” Tibor Navracsics, the European Union’s top culture official, told The Associated Press.  (AP Photo/Thierry Mallet, FILE)

The French haven't always valued Notre-Dame. They rediscovered and restored the building after Victor Hugo's 1831 Gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame gave its sad, neglected plight an imaginary human face in the form of Quasimodo, the cathedral's bell ringer.

Today, it seems, in the name of statehood, history and national pride, we are quick to rally passionately for the sake of a mere thing which, although beautiful, is ultimately only an inanimate object, comprised of stone, wood, lead and glass. It is a sad indictment of our humanity that we appear unable to reach out with equal compassion and generosity to our fellow human beings in their darkest hour.