Why Post-Catholic France Mourned for Notre Dame

April 24 2019

The burning last week of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral stirred the emotions of people the world over, and Catholics especially, but the French, regardless of religious commitment, seemed to feel the loss most deeply. Examining this reaction in light of evidence of the rapid decline of Christianity in France, Christopher Caldwell writes:

For centuries French people revered their cathedrals, priests, and relics. But . . . they haven’t lately: just 6 percent go to Mass, down from 35 percent half a century ago. . . . The pollster Jérôme Fourquet argues in his book L’archipel français (“The French Archipelago”), published last month, that in matters of religion the country is undergoing an “anthropological shift.” As in the United States, the size of the still-religious generation born after World War II long disguised the decline. Today, as that generation ages and dies, a demographic trapdoor opens under the religious population. . . .

The alternative to Christianity, Fourquet shows in his book, has not been lucidity; it has been gaga conspiracy-theorizing. A third of French people eighteen to twenty-four years old believe that airplane contrails have been seeded with hazardous chemicals and that the United States military can provoke storms, versus only 7 or 8 percent of those over sixty-five who believe such things. The decline of religion does not seem to have grounded people in something more true.

That is partly why the fire at Notre Dame shook so many to the core. Objects and traditions bound up with religious belief lend a feeling of sense and stability. For believers they are a reinforcement. For nonbelievers they are a substitute. Notre-Dame is perhaps the greatest such object in Europe. It is a consoling relic, as surely as the crown of thorns that Reverend Jean-Marc Fournier, [the chaplain of the Paris fire department], rescued from the blaze, and this is so for believers and nonbelievers alike. . . .

The fire at Notre Dame is harrowing in a way that feels religious because it is religious: it forces us to understand France as those who created it understood it. The people weeping on the banks of the Seine must have sensed this, even if they could not put into words exactly what they were weeping over.

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A Better Syria Strategy Can Help Achieve the U.S. Goal of Countering Iran

While the Trump administration has reversed much of its predecessor’s effort to realign Washington with Tehran, and has effectively used sanctions to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Omar Hassino argues that these measures might not be enough:

Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. . . . The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the Iranian forces and increase the costs of their expansion and [of Tehran’s] support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The administration should also consider expanding support to the proxy forces that it currently works with—such as the Revolution Commandos near the [U.S.] al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria—for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.

Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil-society groups and local councils operating outside Assad-regime control. Last year, the Trump administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria, including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil-society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian [medical and civil-defense group known as] the White Helmets, before quickly [restoring] some of this funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if this administration takes an approach similar to its predecessor’s in relying on regional powers such as Turkey, these powers will instead fund groups aligned ideologically with Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib.

The United States must [also] jettison the Obama-era [strategy of establishing] “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the Assad regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and Iranian proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must [instead] prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy