PARIS — A far-right writer and activist shot himself dead in front of the altar of Paris’s famed Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday, shortly after calling for “spectacular” action to protect France’s identity.
Police and his publisher confirmed the man’s identity as Dominique Venner, 78, a long-time essayist and activist linked with France’s far-right and nationalist groups.
Police said Venner shot himself with a pistol shortly after 1400 GMT and that the cathedral was then calmly evacuated.
Venner had a long career publishing right-wing essays, military histories and books on weaponry and hunting.
He was a paratrooper during France’s war in Algeria and was a member of the OAS (Secret Armed Organisation), a short-lived paramilitary group that opposed Algeria’s independence from France.
In a final essay on his website Tuesday, he railed against France’s adoption of a law legalising gay marriage and adoption, urging activists to take measures to protect “French and European identities”.
In a possible reference to his suicide, Venner wrote: “There will certainly need to be new, spectacular, symbolic gestures to shake off the sleepiness… and re-awaken the memories of our origins.”
The rector of the cathedral, Monsignor Patrick Jacquin, told AFP that Venner had laid a letter on the altar right before killing himself.
“We did not know him, he was not a regular at the cathedral,” Jacquin said, adding that he believed it was the first time anyone had committed suicide inside the cathedral.
Greg, an American tourist from Phoenix, said the church was full at the time of the suicide but that there was no panic during the evacuation.
“We just heard a loud sound, like a body falling from above,” said Greg, who would not give his last name.
Jacquin said masses had been cancelled and that regional bishops would hold a vigil later on Tuesday.
“We will pray for this man, as for so many others at their end,” he said. “This is terrible, we are thinking of him and his family.”
Notre Dame remained closed about an hour after the suicide, with police blocking tourists from entering the building.
The Gothic cathedral on an islet on the River Seine is one of the most visited sites in Paris, attracting 13.6 million visitors in 2011, and is this year celebrating its 850th anniversary.
It was the second dramatic suicide in less than a week in Paris, after a 50-year-old man with a history of family problems shot himself dead Thursday in a primary school near the Eiffel Tower, in front of about a dozen stunned children.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more details about the event. Photo of Dominique Venner via Wikimedia commons.]