Letters from Paris: 'The Emperor’s New Clothes'


By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // In this week's Letter from Paris, Xander Brett discusses the reopening of the Notre Dame, the l’ÉNA and his most recent travels around France.

18th April, 2021

On Thursday, President Macron took a lift to the roof of Notre-Dame. It was two years to the day since the Great Fire ripped out the inside and sent a wooden flamethrower to the ground. Surveying the speed of restoration, alongside the Mayor of Paris, he recommitted to reopening Notre-Dame in 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics. He revitalised restoration slowed by the virus, and he gave the city a chance for reflection. These past couple of weeks, indeed, have been about reflection. As the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth went into mourning, France sent its condolences. The royal family is close to hearts here, and Prince Philip spent some of childhood in Paris. He walked to school, bicycled in the street and could speak French for the rest of his life. The house in Saint-Cloud has fallen but, down the hill, the building of his nursery is still there.

Bourg-en-Bresse | Epigram / Xander Brett

Last week we learned that President Macron has decided to scrap l’ÉNA, the Strasbourg-based meritocracy established in 1947. The school admits fewer than a hundred students, passing rigorous exams to be fast-tracked into the elite. From it graduated President Macron himself, President Hollande, President Chirac, President Giscard d’Estaing, the incumbent prime minister Jean Castex, and about five of Castex’s predecessors. Shock polls this week put Marine Le Pen ahead of Macron for the 2022 election. So, for the first time, having apparently failed to win the right, Macron has turned his attention to the left instead. Speaking in Nantes a while back, he deplored the state of French mobility, saying it was “worse than fifty years ago”. Still, he gave few details of what he’d replace l’ÉNA with. Is it a baseless promise, or will it be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Périgueux | Epigram / Xander Brett

Having said I’m winding down the travel, I’ve crossed to all four corners of France in a final tour. Last week I was in Normandy, Brittany and the Auvergne. This week, Jura and the Dordogne. I’ve been travelling by train, on the efficient TGV network. Last weekend the National Assembly moved to ban domestic flights. The Citizen’s Convention on the Climate, founded in 2019, proposed banning flights where train alternatives of under four hours exist (this was later reduced to two and a half hours). While it sounds a good idea, many are worried the national train operator, SNCF, will see an opportunity to decrease quality and increase prices… for an already expensive network, I certainly hope not.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett

Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.