As Notre-Dame de Paris Was Burning...
By Pierre Lemieux
From any pronouncement, one must discount emotions, purple prose, and metaphors. Language is complex. In non-mathematical languages, things often (if not always) don’t literally mean what they say. This is even truer for politician-speak.
As Notre-Dame de Paris was burning, French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted:
Like all of our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of us burning.
His original tweet was of course in French, but he repeated it in English. The English version is as close as possible to the French original:
Comme tous nos compatriotes, je suis triste ce soir de voir brûler cette part de nous.
I have no problem believing that Mr. Macron was as sad as were many of “us”—people who share some of my and his aesthetic preferences and values. Many have strong memories from visiting the cathedral. I remember climbing the stairs of the bell tower and feeling the weight of history on the stone curved in by eight centuries of footsteps. And Notre-Dame de Paris is an important monument of Western civilization and French history.
Yet, borrowing the point of view of the French, Notre-Dame is not a “part of us” and it is very unlikely that “all” of Mr. Macron’s compatriots were sad. In a country of 67 million, some certainly did not care. Probably more than one was content, if only for the entertainment. It would not be the first time Notre-Dame did not make unanimity: during the French Revolution, the cathedral was looted with the support of the public authorities and was used for wine storage.
Macron’s is not the worst use of “us” in history. It is not the most dangerous nationalist or tribal appeal that we have heard. (Note that my use of “we” just now is purely rhetorical and refers to an indeterminate subject; in such cases, the French language allows the use of “on” instead of “nous.”) I would also opine that many who were not sad to see Notre-Dame burning are not among the finest specimen of mankind. Yet, the use of “us” remains fraught with danger. One should always be clear in his own mind about who is included in the “we” set.
Macron also tweeted that the cathedral would be restored through a “national subscription” also open to foreigners who love Notre-Dame-de-Paris. He could not avoid some we-talk and invoking the “French national destiny.” But thinking of a voluntary subscription to finance this public good is wise. Moreover, I am sure that the price of visiting the renovated monument will increase. (If I remember well, walking in the cathedral was free although there was a fee for visiting the tower.) Perfect public goods are rare.