TO watch flames leap from the roof of Notre Dame was to catch a glimpse of wartime terror. Those who witnessed Glasgow School of Art being consumed by fire will know the sensation: sickening horror and utter disbelief as a landmark – in this case the very heart of old Paris – disappears before your eyes. As the cathedral spire cracked and collapsed, there was a collective cry of despair.

Fire on this scale is a haunting reminder of bombing blitzes, and not what anyone expects on a balmy springtime evening. Whether that makes the shock greater is irrelevant: the loss and sorrow are the same. The rapid response of Parisians spoke of the deep place Notre Dame holds in France’s psyche. “It was Paris’s lighthouse,” said one, indicating that this marvel of medieval gothic architecture was the brightest of all beacons in the famous city of lights. “It is our history, our literature, our imagination,” said President Emmanuel Macron, vowing “we will rebuild Notre Dame together”.

All of us who have visited Paris have made a bee-line for this remarkable, forbidding place, which perhaps explains why its destruction has touched people across the world. Notre Dame, home of Victor Hugo’s tender-hearted hunchback, Quasimodo, is to Paris what Edinburgh Castle is to the capital: a massive, seemingly immovable monument, witness to centuries of turbulent affairs. Both have represented an unchanging presence around which tides of revolutions and revolts, war and politics have washed.

As it lies in partial ruin, Notre Dame is being talked of as part of France’s soul. Yet this 855-year-old building carries meaning far beyond the country’s border. It was here that Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned, and Joan of Arc beatified, but it was also the scene of Henry VI of England’s coronation as King of France, when he was a child. More than a century later, on April 24 , 1558, Mary Stuart was married beneath its graceful soaring roof to Francis, the dauphin, son of Henri II. By all accounts it was an eye-wateringly extravagant event. A large theatrical stage was built outside the cathedral, and inside there was a massive triumphal arch. As weddings went, it was the most spectacular Notre Dame had ever witnessed.

Read more: Macron vows to rebuild cathedral

I doubt there’s a country in Europe whose history has not crossed with the cathedral’s at some point. In certain respects, it is the most venerable symbol of an emerging Europe, a fulcrum for events that have made the continent what it is today. No wonder crowds watching the inferno from the Île de la Cité or on television wept.

The largest of its 10 bells, Emmanuel, shares its name with the president. This coincidence might just prove fateful. Mr Macron rushed to the scene before the fire wholly engulfed the roof and spire. It is a little ironic that, as the flames took hold, he cancelled a recorded speech due to be broadcast at eight that evening. This statement was intended to restart his first term in office, and go some way towards appeasing the gilets jaunes movement, which has badly damaged his credibility and his country’s stability.

Doubtless he postponed because of the gravity of the unfolding disaster. Even so, Mr Macron’s emotional proclamation late into the night, in which he pledged to see the cathedral restored to glory, might prove to have been a masterly stroke.

It is too cynical to suggest that even as the fire blazed the president understood that this crisis could improve his standing. But the political fall-out might nevertheless work to his advantage. In a way that no prepared script could, the president’s response to the fire, and his assurance that “together” the cathedral will be rebuilt, will have won him new friends and admirers. He might have misjudged the national mood when handling the gilets jaunes’ demands, but on the night when Notre Dame burned, he too was ablaze. Instinctively he gauged the depth of feeling this place rouses in the people he governs. That affection, and the profound heritage the cathedral represents, crosses political, ideological and class divides. The wealthy of the Boulevard Saint Germain feel the same in this matter as their compatriots in downtrodden rural France.

If anything could unite people across the board, it is the sight of the country’s best-loved building wreathed in blood-orange smoke. Some will doubtless see this calamity as a warning or sign, as when York Minster went on fire. Certainly, the potency of the pictures of such a blaze is primitive. You cannot fail to respond, nor to feel a passing shiver of superstition that, at this exceptionally troubled and uncertain time in Europe, it holds a message of some kind.

For Mr Macron, that message might simply be that Notre Dame is a symbol of what unites the nation, an olive branch of sorts. In promising without hesitation to secure its future, he was committing also to hold together the France of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

It might not be the speech he expected to deliver, but it may

prove to be the finest he has yet made.