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Visiting Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, and its square: distances and viewpoints converging and contrasting

Updated on August 9, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
The square at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
The square at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris | Source
Commemorative plaque, the square at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, for Brigadier Rey Marcel, killed August 19, 1944
Commemorative plaque, the square at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, for Brigadier Rey Marcel, killed August 19, 1944 | Source
Map location of Paris, France
Map location of Paris, France | Source

Plenty of opinions at Point Zero

Given that so many commentaries, resources and articles have dealt copiously with Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, the focus of this brief article will include comments on the square at the Cathedral, which is, after all, where most visitors to the Cathedral will converge.


It may be noted that, such is the symbolic status of the Cathedral in French life, that the square contains the point from which all distances in France are officially calculated. This, then, is kilometre zero. If French people tell you, therefore, that such and such a city in France is so many kilometres from Paris, they will mean the distance as calculated from Notre Dame Cathedral's square. The Roman Empire provided the notion that 'all roads led to Rome'; well, in France, this most centralized of countries, all calculated road distances lead — literally — to Notre Dame Cathedral's square, in Paris. A marker set in the pavement provides official evidence of this, with the inscription:


In a broader, metaphorical sense, also, the Cathedral and its square has marked a stark convergence and conflict of events and viewpoints in French history.

The French Revolution: before and after

For hundreds of years Notre Dame Cathedral, dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries, functioned as a leading building of the Roman Catholic church in France. Its extraordinary, Gothic features, the twin tower frontage, the stained glass windows and other artistic treasures, combined to provide an aesthetically intense centre for a powerful church supported by the French state.

Then came the secularist Revolution and the revolutionaries installed in Notre Dame Cathedral a woman representing the goddess of reason. Far from separating the church from the state, the revolutionaries were installing the state's own, new religion in the Cathedral. It was only after a lot of blood-letting that eventually Napoleon I, the strongman that emerged from among the revolutionaries, made his peace with the Roman Catholic Church again. But, as régimes came and went during the 19th century, these conflicts left legacies of both reactionary authoritarianism and of radical hostility to religion.

So what happened when church and state were finally separated in 1905, under the 3rd Republic? Members of religious teaching orders went into exile and ideological conflicts were exacerbated, being particularly acute following the wrongful treason conviction of Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whom many traditionalists despised and whose innocence they refused to countenance. Then came World War One, and nationalists such as novelist Maurice Barrès — who sought in his writings and speeches to harness traditionalist forces for professedly 'national' ends — tried to turn war hostility to the German invaders into a 'national', religious movement. The clergy was identified in many people's minds with the defence of national honour. At Barrès's passing in 1923, he was afforded a national funeral at Notre Dame Cathedral (1).

1944: Marshal Pétain welcomed

World War Two came; France capitulated, following military defeat, and the collaborationist, fascist-sympathizing régime of Marshal Philippe Pétain came to power and restored the church some of its privileges, lost in 1905. The French Resistance, on the other hand, was strongly identified with secularism, receiving Communist support (that is, after — not before — Hilter invaded Stalin's Soviet Union in 1941). With a timing which can only be described as catastrophic, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris gave a solemn reception to Marshall Pétain at Notre Dame Cathedral in April 1944, a few weeks before the Normandy Landings (2), which were followed by the Liberation of Paris in August, 1944. Over a number of days of sanguinary events, it is estimated that 8- to 10,000 resistants died in the successful efforts to liberate Paris from the German occupiers. The immediate vicinity of Notre Dame Cathedral was not spared the blood-letting; a plaque at the Cathedral square today honours Brigadier Marcel Rey, killed August 19, 1944.

1944: General de Gaulle welcomed

It was thus with a rather radicalized and quite substantially secularist following that General Charles de Gaulle, acknowledged leader of the Free French Forces, was installed in Paris as head of France's provisional government in August 1944. As a basically conservative person of Roman Catholic conviction, General de Gaulle was a leading attendee at a thanksgiving service at Notre Dame Cathedral on August 26, 1944: with a notable absence: the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris who had recently received Marshall Pétain at the Cathedral — he was confined to his residence by order of the General.

Focal point for 'ad hoc' constitutional conventions and debates?

One can maybe thus grasp something of the electric atmosphere prevailing at times in the vicinity of Notre Dame Cathedral in the heady days of 1944.

However, the square at the Cathedral has not been a stranger to profoundly challenging debates in more recent years.

The year 2006 came round and Paris city council decided to re-name the Square of Notre Dame Place (Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame) by a modified title: Notre-Dame Place - John-Paul II Square (Parvis-Notre-Dame - Place Jean-Paul II). Thus, at a ceremony on September 1 of that year, there was a coming together of religious and municipal leaders in honour of the official re-naming.

All did not go to plan, however; in the first place, the city council had not been unanimous in its decision to re-name the square. Secondly, on the day of the re-naming ceremony, vocal opponents to this move also arrived at the square and staged a protest. In turn, French police are on record as having detained for questioning about 50 people among those who, for different reasons, wished to assert their disagreement with the symbolism of the ceremony.

Written accounts varied significantly in emphasis regarding events at the square on September 1, 2006, depending on the views of the writer. A lay Catholic publication highlighted the Papal Nuncio's eulogy of the late John-Paul II. The respected, widely read magazine L'Express dubbed the locale: 'square of discord'.

It is clear that, at this historic Point Zero of France, the square at the Cathedral remains a focal point for the convergence and conflict of sometimes vehemently expressed viewpoints.


(1) Others called him 'the most disastrous teacher in the whole of history' (Tristan Tzara); still others were less complimentary, but I forbear to print the words used. In any case, this partisan of 'nationalist' religiosity has been identified by Israeli academic Zeev Sternhell as the original national socialist theorist. Barrès's views may be understood as being particularly thought-provoking — disturbing, even? — given his attempts to morph together a Rosicrucian- and anarchy-driven, elemental cult of selfhood with racial blood-and-soil mythology and traditionalist religion (while being himself a de facto atheist). See also: Zeev Sternhell, Ni Droite, Ni Gauche, l'Idéologie fasciste en France (tr., Neither Right nor Left, Fascist Ideology in France), Eds. du Seuil, Paris, 1983; Richard Griffiths, The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature 1870 - 1914 , London: Constable, 1966; MJFenn, The Egotistical Basis of Barrès's Nationalism; its relevance to the Case of Saunders Lewis , unpublished MPhil thesis, University of Wales, 1989.

(2) French republicans also noted with misgivings the 'national funeral' status at Notre Dame Cathedral afforded at the end of June 1944 — when the Normandy Landings had already occurred — to Philippe Henriot, an assassinated, fascist government minister. However, responsibility for the killing of a number of Jews by way of reprisals over the death of minister Henriot was not personally attributable to the Cardinal-Archbishop. These events had been preceded by denunciations of the Resistance by the French bishops.

Also worth seeing

See the links, below, for some details of other sights of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bourbon Palace and the Paris Opera.

Reims (distance: 143 kilometres); its impressive Cathedral is where many of the kings of France were crowned; in this city, General Dwight D. Eisenhower received the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945; North American visitors may particularly be interested to see the Surrender Museum (Musée de la reddition).


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle), from where car rental is available; however, visitors to Paris may wish to explore the city via its excellent public transport system. Notre Dame Cathedral's Métro stations are either Cité or Saint-Michel . Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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