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Interview With French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud; Flames Engulf Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 15, 2019 - 16:00   ET



JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's the loss of a gigantic symbol for the country and for the world.


Jim, thank you very much. You will continue with part of the coverage.

One quick note. It had been speculated on. It was one of our concerns, why no helicopters dumping water. The French government has responded to that. It's not about not having the capability. It's not even about not being able to get them there in time.

They're worried that this type of fire in this type of structure, that kind of water being dumped into it may have increased the risk of the walls imploding or falling out. So it was a conscious decision that was made.

Our coverage with Jake Tapper in Washington continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news in the world lead.

The world famous Notre Dame Cathedral is on fire right now in Paris, France, the roof and spire collapsing on the 800-year-old building, which continues at this hour to be engulfed by smoke and flames. Right now, we're told more than 400 firefighters mobilized to try to save what's left of the cathedral, a cathedral, we should note, that is not just symbolic for France and not just for Catholics, but for all of us around the world, for anyone who can appreciate beauty or godliness or history or architecture.

As 19th century novelist Victor Hugo once wrote of the Notre Dame Cathedral -- quote -- "Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art."

We're learning at this hour French President Emmanuel Macron was on the scene. We're not sure if he's still there. Paris prosecutors have announced an investigation into this fire, even before it's been put out. World leaders have been offering prayers for France, as the horrific fire continues.

The question remaining, of course, what will be left of one of the world's most iconic places of worship?

Let's go now to CNN's Melissa Bell. She's on the scene.

Melissa, tell us what you're seeing right now and tell us the reaction of the people you have spoken with there.

MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, huge emotion here outside Notre Dame.

The crowds that had gathered, that had been milling around when the fire broke out so suddenly, with those extraordinary images earlier on with the flames reaching as high of those towers at the very front of that iconic facade, they have now been brought under control, but still inside the nave of the church, the fire continues.

And all around, those crowds have continued to gather. And this has really become something of a vigil. Catholics have been singing hymns over the course of the evening. (INAUDIBLE) one of the most famous hymns of the French Catholic Church, has been sung over and over again, as the crowds look on, some of them in tears, some of them holding each other.

A great deal of emotion, as so much history and such an important part of France went up in smoke; 400 firefighters have now managed to bring it under control, but still the fire continues.

It gives you an idea, Jake, of just how fierce it was. Still no indication of what may have started it, but, really, those plumes of black smoke that began billowing out just after 7:00 p.m. local time, then turned into massive flames, reaching high up into the sky, and shouts from the crowds as they watched this building being engulfed.

Even now, that sense of shock has really turned to sadness, as one of the most famous buildings in the world, Jake, the most visited in Europe, has been irretrievably damaged. No word yet on what may have begun it, no word yet on the extent of the damage. But having watched that fire over the course of the evening, there is no doubt that it will be substantial and that a huge part, not just of France's history, but of humanity's, will have been lost this evening.

TAPPER: And, Melissa, Notre Dame, the cathedral gets, roughly 13 million visitors a year, 30,000 to 50,000 a day. It would normally be packed with visitors. Do we know if anyone was inside? Do we know if anybody, any individual people suffered as a result of this horrible conflagration?

BELL: We're not hearing for the time being, Jake, of any human casualties.

We believe that the damage for the time being is structural. It is to the history, to the building itself. When this fire broke out, we understand that it was closing time. You're right. There are every day huge queues outside this building, and all the more in the run-up to Easter weekend, hoping to get in to have a visit of what is an awe- inspiring building once you get inside.

At closing time, though, people were being taken out of the church. And we understand, for the time being, that there were no casualties. That's what we're hearing for now. But these are really the early hours of an investigation.

The Paris prosecutor was here, as you say, with the French president, who had been due to speak to the French nation tonight on live television. That was canceled, so that he could make his way here to inspect the damage for himself.


But, even now, that fire continues to rage. Such was its ferocity, such was the suddenness with which it engulfed the structure, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Melissa, as you noted, Catholics have just begun celebrating Holy Week, which culminates with Easter Sunday.

That must be all the more reason why people are just having a tough time dealing with this, with this tragic fire, it happening during this week, of all weeks.

BELL: That's right.

The timing of this, of course, makes it particularly dreadful. And that's what you sense from the Catholics who have gathered here to sing those hums and to be with one another, as they continue to watch this tragedy, this catastrophe, not just for Paris, but for the world, unfold.

Clearly, the meaning for the Catholics as they entered Holy Week, as they prepared for Easter Sunday, which would have been celebrated here in Notre Dame behind me here, as it is every year with a beautiful ceremony, that will now not be taking place. The question is how long it's going to take them to bring this fire under control and, once they do manage to get inside, how substantial and irretrievable the damage will have been.

The other question, of course, how this could have begun as suddenly and as violently as it did tonight.

TAPPER: All right, Melissa Bell on the scene, thank you so much. Stay there. We're going to come back to you.

And I just want to bring in this note. We're told by the Paris fire brigade commander, General Jean-Claude Gallet, that the next hour-and- a-half will be crucial to efforts to save what remains of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Mr. Gallet said there's a risk that the great bell falls. If the bell falls, it's the tower that collapses. There are firefighters inside and outside. The next hour-and-a-half will be crucial, he said. Joining me now on the phone is the French ambassador to the United

States, Monsieur Gerard Araud.

Good to talk to you again.

I'm sorry it's under these conditions, Mr. Ambassador.

When did you learn that Notre Dame was on fire? Tell us your reaction.

GERARD ARAUD, FRENCH AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Well, I didn't think that I could be so emotional.

And I'm still -- well, it's unbelievable. You know, for me, it's -- and for us, for the French, it's the symbol of Paris. I can't think of the skyline of Paris without the spire of Notre Dame, which has just collapsed.

It's 1,000 years of my history, of -- it's our national identity, which is burning. You know, it's awful. You know, I'm sorry to be so emotional, but there are not words to say.

TAPPER: No need to apologize. In fact, Mr. Macron said, "Like all our countrymen, I'm sad tonight to see this part of us burn."

The idea that Notre Dame Cathedral is actually not just a building, it is part of all of France, including the French people.

ARAUD: It really -- and when I was passing by Notre Dame, really, I was looking at Notre Dame without having a feeling.

And suddenly I realize, you know, from facing this disaster, this destruction, how much it mattered for us, you know, how it was a part of ourselves.

TAPPER: Ambassador Araud, do you know, have you been given any indication how close firefighters are to getting this fire out, how confident they are that they will be able to beat back the fire within the next hour-and-a-half?

ARAUD: No, I really -- fire is always so unpredictable.

You know, here we are talking about a frame of 30 tons of wood, which is burning. Nobody knows the temperature now inside the cathedral.

And, as you heard, if the bells of the cathedral really are melting, if they collapse, it's also the two towers which could collapse. So if the firemen don't succeed to stop the fire in one-hour-and-a-half, all of the cathedral is totally destroyed.

And it's quite difficult. The fire is at 100 feet, and, as was explained, it's not possible to use water tankers, which could only worsen the situation of the building. So I think we have only to pray now. TAPPER: Do you know anything about -- obviously, the architecture of

the building and the spire and losing that is heartbreaking. Do you know anything about the artwork inside Notre Dame Cathedral, the crown of thorns or the holy sacraments that are there are?


ARAUD: I read -- but I don't have any more information.

I read that actually the relics, the holy relics, and part of the art pieces have been evacuated, you know, especially, as you said, the only holy cross, holy thorn, I hope, but I was told where -- it was evacuated.


TAPPER: The Paris prosecutors have opened an investigation into this fire. Is there any indication that this was intentional, as opposed to accidental?

ARAUD: You know, any -- when you have any fire, immediately, you have an investigation which is launched, because even if it's an accident, there will be the problem of the responsibility of the accident, from who is responsible or whether there is a human responsibility in the accident.

As you know, there was a big restoration work going on. Part of the church was actually covered by scaffolds. And, apparently -- but, again I'm -- apparently, the fire started from the scaffold. So we have to wait for the investigation.

TAPPER: Ambassador Araud, thank you for taking time on such an emotional day for you. I know that this will be rebuilt. And I know that it will be stronger than before. But our hearts go out to you and all of our brothers and sisters in France tonight.

ARAUD: Thank you very, very much. Thank you.

TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward.

And, Clarissa, Notre Dame is obviously more than just a church for Catholics in France. It has global significance.


And, I mean, you have been to Paris many times. We have covered horrific attacks in Paris together, back in 2015 after the Bataclan attack. And Notre Dame, I mean, no one forgets the first time you visit as a young American tourist that moment of arriving on the island, of seeing this spectacular soaring architecture, of walking through those doors and looking at the rose window, which is so unique and so beautiful.

There's such a sense of majesty, of tranquility, that you really -- you really feel this sense of humility. You feel, whether you are religious or not, whether you are Catholic or Jewish or an atheist, you feel a sense of humility amid something that is greater than you.

Whether it's the divine or not, you can feel it. It's palpable. And so I do think there's a huge amount of sadness, not just felt by Catholics and French people, but by all people across the world, 13 million visitors, every single year, as you said, Jake.

And even the name of the church itself, Notre Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris, this fundamentally French edifice truly was the grand dame of Paris. It was an institution visited by people all over the world. And it has on many occasions in the past faced huge challenges.

It was ransacked by Huguenots in the 1540s. It was desecrated during the French Revolution, and then was rebuilt during the time -- around the time of Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," was rebuilt over a period of 25 years. So, certainly, there's a sense, I think, that there will be some effort made to try to recast this magnificent structure into its former glory.

But the next couple of hours, Jake, are crucial. And people are watching very closely to see, does that structure collapse? Because if the skeleton of the building collapses, it's hard to imagine how any reconstruction can even begin.

And firefighters are saying, this next hour-and-a-half, particularly, are going to be absolutely crucial in terms of determining how much of this magnificent church can actually be saved, Jake.

TAPPER: Construction began somewhere in the 1160s.

As you note, it's been -- as you noted, it's been through some tough times before, including the Huguenots, the French Revolution.

One of the amazing things about Notre Dame is that it survived World War II. And there is a cruel sadness in the fact that it was able to, the building, she was able to survive that horrible war that wreaked such havoc on Europe and the buildings and the people of Europe, more importantly, but arriving at this tragedy today, and it looks, though, we don't know the actual reason, but it looks like for accidental reasons.

WARD: It's extraordinary.

I mean, as you said, it's not just World War II, World War I, the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, the Crusades. All throughout and deeply embroidered into France's history, Notre Dame has stood magnificent, notwithstanding the violence, notwithstanding the political ongoings, notwithstanding the troubles being experienced.

She has survived it all. And I think the idea that possibly some seemingly random fire could somehow be responsible for an end to this magnificent structure, it's very difficult for people to get their heads around, not just in terms of the loss architecturally, but also the loss spiritually, Jake. [16:15:01] I mean, you mentioned at the top of the show, this is

Easter Week. Millions of Catholics are celebrating the most important week in the Christian calendar.

And Friday, Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus, is a day of sadness, is a day of mourning. But Sunday, Easter Sunday, the Resurrection, this is supposed to be a day of renewal, of rebirth, of rejoicing, of jubilation.

And so, the Vatican and the French authorities, I think, now really have a challenge on their hands, during this time of sadness. How can they -- how can they recast this. How can they make an opportunity from this moment? How can they bring people together and provide them with some comfort amid something that may just look like a building in flames, but which speaks to something much more profound in people, which is I think why you're seeing this outpouring of grief and shock across the world, Jake.

TAPPER: Well said. Clarissa Ward, thank you so much. Stick by, we're going to come back to you.

I want to go back to Melissa Bell, who is on the streets.

And, Melissa, one of the big questions here, we know that the building of Notre Dame is on horrible shape, but one of the big questions has to do with the irreplaceable and valuable artwork, including religious artifacts that are in Notre Dame. And we're still not, we're not quite sure.

What are you hearing about the crown of thorns? About the original cross, about some of those items?

BELL: Well, this is one of the big questions. We've been watching the structural damage over the course of the evening, the collapse of that spire, those dramatic images of the structural damage. But, of course, given how intensely that fire continues to rage inside the nave, that is the question, how much history, how much artwork will have been lost?

And in particular, for the many Catholics who have gathered here and I've been speaking to a priest who said to me, I had to rush here as soon as I saw the pictures, as soon as I heard of the fire, because this Notre Dame is my house. It is my home. It's where I was ordained.

And it's where so much of what matters to Catholics resides. One of the most important relics to the Catholic Church, you mentioned, the crown of thorns brought from Constantinople to France and rest here inside Notre Dame, believed to have been the very one worn by Jesus Christ himself in Jerusalem just before his crucifixion. The question is, what happens to that relic? Did it survive? Might it have survived? Could anything that was actually in the nave of the building have escaped those terrible flames?

And that's the question on so many of the minds of the Catholics who have gathered, who continue to sing their hymns all around us this evening, in what's become a sort of makeshift, an ongoing vigil, even, as the extent of the fire remains an outstanding question, Jake.

TAPPER: Thank you, Melissa.

And we just got this tweet from the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, who is Catholic. And she writes, Notre Dame -- pardon, Notre Dame Paris has stood as a beating heart of religion and culture for centuries, inspiring all who have visited her. The footage of today's fire is nothing short of heartbreaking. To the people of Paris and France, know that America stands with you.

It's a message from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Our coverage on this breaking news continues as the world watches in horror as the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral is consumed by flames.

We'll be right back.


[16:22:23] TAPPER: We're back with our breaking news.

Amid one of the holiest weeks of the year, the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is currently on fire, crowds watching on as the spire collapsed this afternoon. Firefighters, at least 400 of them, rushed to save what's left of the 800-year-old building.

World leaders are reacting.

The secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Gutierrez, just tweeted he's, quote, horrified by the pictures coming from Paris, with the fire engulfing Notre Dame cathedral, a unique example of world heritage, which has stood tall since the 14th century.

We also have reaction from President Trump, who just weighed in minutes ago. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's one of the great treasures of the world, the greatest artists in the world. Probably, if you think about it, I would say, it might be greater than almost any museum in the world. And it's burning very badly. It looks like it's burning to the ground.

So that puts a damper on what we're about to say, to be honest, because that is beyond countries, that's beyond anything. That's a part of our growing up, it's a part of our culture. It's a part of our lives. That's a truly great cathedral.

And I've been there and I've seen it, and there's no cathedral -- I think I can say, there's probably no cathedral in the world like it.

It's a terrible scene. They think it was caused by -- at this moment, they don't know, but they think it was caused by renovation. And I hope that's the reason. Renovation, you know, what's that all about? But it's a terrible sight to behold. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump in a tweet also suggested that, quote, flying water tankers could be used to put out the fire. Apparently in response, the French civil security agency tweeted, quote, the drop of water by air on this type of building could, indeed, result in the collapse of the entire structure, unquote.

Dominic Thomas joins me now. He's a CNN European affairs commentator and the chair of the French department at UCLA.

And, Dominic, you grew up in Paris. Seeing Notre Dame Cathedral was part of your life as a child, as a young adult. How big a deal, how big a tragedy is this for you and for the people of France?

DOMINIC THOMAS, CNN EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: Yes, it's an extraordinary tragedy. When you think of France, there are two iconic buildings. The late 19th century Eiffel Tower and then Cathedral of Notre Dame. Two iconic architectural sites that are recognizable by anybody, anywhere in the world.

[16:25:02] The millions and millions of tourists that visit France every year either enter the cathedral and in fact go up into some of those -- into the towers, the left tower, we've seen, has also been taken over by some fire. And if not, people visit the surrounding area. It sits right in the heart of Paris on one of the two old islands. It is extraordinarily difficult to get to, surrounded by cobbled streets and so on.

But, obviously, to see this building on fire is just absolutely extraordinary. And in the map that you have up there, you see it that sits juxtaposed between the historic left bank and right bank of the city. And a lot of this area has been closed off to vehicle access, especially in the wake of various terror attacks and it's a difficult one to get to.

And the big question, of course, is we know that there was so much wood inside, there's scaffolding. But it's, what is the catalyst that started this fire? What are potentially the various chemical products that were there, that were being used for this meticulous renovation that takes years and years and years? And these questions are yet to be answered.

TAPPER: And we're told at this hour by the Paris fire brigade commander general, Jean-Claude Gallet, that the next hour and a half will be crucial. If the great bell falls, the tower will collapse, and there are firefighters inside and outside.

Dominic, every individual who has gone to Notre Dame has had his or her own reaction to it. Some people have religious experiences, some people just appreciate the fact that this started, the construction started in the 1100s, and feel a relation to the humanity from more than 800 years ago.

What's your -- what do you feel when you think about this building? THOMAS: Yes, well, when you see these various architectural sites, of

course, they continue to perform, in this case, a contemporary religious role and function. But I think that they've gone way beyond that. They are the markers of a longer history, a history of conflicts with of revolutions, and so on. And no matter what one's religious faith may be, they are part of a greater identity. They are the cornerstone, not just of French identity, but of one could argue, could be European identity.

And as with the attacks on the "Charlie Hebdo" weekly magazine that brought so much solidarity in France, this was actually an attack on a very long history of freedom of expression and so on. And Notre Dame is also one of those sites that in some way commemorates a history of divisiveness, of religious struggle, of conflict between around Catholics and Protestants, and it's a space also of mediation.

And at a time when so much of French and European politics has been embroiled by the polemics around the far right and anti-Semitism and the problems with Islamophobia and so on and so forth, that thinking about this longer historical identity and thinking about the ways in which community and reconciliation have operated around these sites are incredibly important. They are inculcated in young people from the very early ages of schooling and are also among the most visited sites in the world, precisely because they are architectural marvels in a way, but also because of that longer historical moments that we often forget about.

TAPPER: And, Dominic, what do you think France will do regardless -- I mean, we know that, obviously, the building is in horrible shape. Will France rebuild?

THOMAS: Absolutely and unequivocally. Not only will they rebuild, but the fact that these iconic sites are being renovated actually a crucial component of French foreign policy that the soft power of France remains untainted and that the very attraction, the touristic attraction. This is, let's not forget, the most visited city in the world. I think at the time of the London Olympics, London rose up to that level.

But this is an incontrovertible site of global tourism. The French state has been investing in renovating these sites and there is absolutely no doubt that renovating Notre Dame will be at the front and center as to what they do. But there's a big difference between renovating the physical structure of the building and even contemplating replacing the stained glass windows, the iconic objects that are found within that. And that I think beyond, of course, the concern about the loss of human life, the true catastrophe of this is not only the architectural structure, but all that is contained within it and the guise of these flames.