Restoring A Cathedral, Erasing Empire: A Tale of Two Fires

Restoring A Cathedral, Erasing Empire: A Tale of Two Fires

Meghan Tinsley

On 15 April 2019, a fire at Notre-Dame de Paris destroyed the building’s roof and spire, causing some €7 billion of damage to its structure and contents. The fire dominated global news coverage for days afterwards, as politicians promised to rebuild the cathedral and corporations pledged financial support. Within days, private donors had raised €1 billion, and President Macron vowed to complete restorations within five years. ‘I profoundly believe that it is up to us to transform this catastrophe into an opportunity to come together,’ Macron proclaimed in a televised address, ‘and think about what we were, and what we need to become.’ The immediate response to the fire at Notre-Dame provided a striking display of unity in support of an iconic symbol of the nation.

Ten kilometres away, in the commune of Nogent-sur-Marne, weeds obscured the padlocked gate to a charred wooden structure. That building, the Congolese Pavilion, had been damaged by arson in 2004. Since then, its supporters had lobbied the French state for funding, arguing that the building and the surrounding Garden of Tropical Agronomy were important sites of memory for the French Empire. Their efforts were, and remain, unsuccessful.

What does the sharp contrast between these two episodes tell us about national memory in France today? What, further, can we learn from the violent fragmentation of French society preceding the Notre-Dame fire and the eventual return of dissensus in its aftermath? Comparing the two sites reveals both the importance of national memory for the idea of France and the erasure of empire in the service of ‘unity’. It also provides insight into the limits of national memory for encapsulating the identity of a post-imperial society.

In 2014, while researching the memory of empire in the First World War centenary, I came across the Garden of Tropical Agronomy. Because of its importance for Muslim soldiers during the war, the garden became one of my key field sites. Over the course of eighteen months, I visited the garden and adjacent sites (including the garden’s library, a section of the municipal cemetery for Muslim soldiers, and the archives of two local museums); interviewed key stakeholders; and analysed secondary sources (websites, films, and a public discussion in Nogent-sur-Marne). The Garden of Tropical Agronomy had housed a hospital for Muslim soldiers, alongside the first purpose-built mosque in metropolitan France. During the war, these sites were widely known and carefully documented: postcards depict clean wards and well-dressed staff, soldiers receiving medals from visiting dignitaries, and religious leaders inside the sumptuously decorated mosque. For the French imperial state, the garden offered evidence of its commitment to acting in the interests of Muslim soldiers. By extension, it served to legitimise the French Empire.

The Garden of Tropical Agronomy was significant for an additional reason: since 1899, under various guises, it had sought to bring the empire to the metropolis. First established as a school of tropical medicine for colonial civil servants, the site had hosted the 1906 Colonial Exhibition. There, one million Parisian visitors could celebrate the scale and diversity of la plus grande France amidst Orientalist pavilions named for each colony, and photograph themselves alongside the occupants of model villages. In this context, the garden’s history of colonial encounter made it seem a fitting location for a Muslim hospital when war broke out—and, thereafter, for an additional Colonial Exhibition in 1931.

Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, the Garden of Tropical Agronomy was an important site for constructing the idea of France. The garden localised and situated the empire in relation to the metropolis: with its exoticised representations of colonial subjects and spaces, it gave metropolitan visitors a sense of intimacy with, and dominion over, the French Empire. Long after Muslim soldiers in hospital and civilians in human zoos had returned to their places of origin, the memory of the garden lingered as a site of colonial encounter.

The significance of the garden, however, changed alongside the nation’s idea of itself. Following the Second World War and the growth of anti-colonial nationalism, former French colonies proclaimed their independence from imperial rule. In Indochina and Algeria, two symbolically important colonies, the French state refused to cede control, instead curtailing the rights of colonised subjects and eventually embarking upon brutal wars marked by torture and crimes against civilians. The victory of nationalists in both wars brought the French Empire to a decisive end. Decades later, the Algerian War in particular remains a difficult, contested memory that hampers diplomatic relations between France and Algeria, contributes to the socioeconomic marginalisation of Franco-Algerians, and buttresses support for the far right. A source of fragmentation that veers into explicit racism, the French Empire lurks just beneath the surface of national consciousness.

No longer a symbol of French imperial unity, in the last decades of the twentieth century the Garden of Tropical Agronomy became a source of embarrassment and shame, a reminder of both the empire’s fallen glory and its racist tropes. Yet the pavilions from the colonial exhibitions (with the exception of the wooden-frame mosque) also were never demolished. Rather, the garden gradually fell into ruin, a physical manifestation of what Ann Stoler terms ‘colonial aphasia’. Pockets of supporters have resisted this passive erasure: the garden’s long-time caretaker, Serge Volper, maintains a library and archive alongside his own impressive knowledge of the site. Françoise Poulin-Jacob, a filmmaker, and Stéphanie Trouillard, a freelance journalist, produced a documentary and a website, respectively, in the hope of bringing greater public awareness to the site. Two veterans’ organisations hold annual ceremonies in honour of colonial soldiers. Finally, local government officials, including Mayor Jacques Jean-Pierre Martin, have lobbied continuously for state support. Yet thus far, none of their efforts have yielded funding for restoration.

Government funding and attention have turned to more palatable, less overtly problematic sites—including, notably, the Great Mosque of Paris, erected in 1922 in gratitude to Muslim First World War soldiers. While the Great Mosque was also a symbol of imperial glory during its first decades, and a tool of state surveillance during the Algerian War, its meaning has become detached from empire, and it is now widely associated with ‘French Islam’ in the public consciousness. The mosque’s ability to take on new meanings alongside the changing idea of the nation has enabled it to endure as a site associated with national identity. Thus, the Great Mosque of Paris—not the Garden of Tropical Agronomy—contains two marble plaques, commissioned by President Sarkozy and unveiled by President Hollande, honouring the Muslim soldiers of the two world wars. For the French state, and for the non-Muslim public, the mosque encapsulates an idea of Islam that is cohesive, comprehensible, and compatible with French citizenship.

Significantly, Notre-Dame has also taken on numerous meanings over the course of eight centuries. During the Revolution, its association with the ancien régime made it the target of looting and desecration. Thereafter, it became the symbol of a monarchical, Catholic identity that stood in direct contrast with the republican, secular nation. In 1905, alongside other religious buildings, Notre-Dame passed under state ownership—an act that effectively assimilated the building into a consensual national identity. The outpouring of grief across the political spectrum following the fire at Notre-Dame indicates that the building is no longer a divisive site. Yet it is only by emptying the building of its problematic history that it has become a symbol of the nation.

The semblance of unity that followed the Notre-Dame fire was fleeting. After the initial wave of financial pledges, critics began to ask why, amidst the rising cost of living and government cuts to services, corporations and wealthy citizens were so eager to fund the restoration of an empty building. President Macron, who had cancelled a speech on the gilets jaunes movement in the wake of the fire. Even more outrageous was Jean-Jacques Aillagon’s proposal that the donations to Notre-Dame be ninety percent tax deductible (rather than the standard sixty). The growing undercurrent of opposition to the state’s handling of the Notre-Dame fire indicates that there are limits to the unity that national memory can engender.

Creating a site of national memory requires privileging some sites, and some memories, over others. It also requires privileging some aspects of a site’s history while forgetting others. In all of this, the sites that come to symbolise the nation represent only a small slice of a nation’s multivocal, hierarchical, and often violent past and present. Perhaps the Notre-Dame fire will lead politicians and citizens alike to re-examine how they construct national memory, and what they forget in the process.

Further Reading:

Davidson N (2012) Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Stoler AL (2013) Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Tinsley M (2019) Memory and Melancholia in the Garden of Tropical Agronomy. Memory Studies. Available online ahead of print:


Meghan Tinsley is Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities at the University of Manchester. Her research concerns memory, nationalism, racism, and state violence. Most recently, she has examined representations of Muslims during the First World War centenary in Britain and France.