Under the watchful eye of Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, the first stones of Notre Dame cathedral were laid in 1136.

In the medieval ages, no city could proclaim itself a truly great urban centre without a cathedral. Paris had none. How could a city with pretensions to be the centre of Christianity rival Rome without a cathedral?

It simply had to match its increasingly important role as a centre of trade and commerce with commensurate status-conferring architecture.

Work began in earnest a generation later in 1180 and it wasn’t completed until the 14th century.

Notre Dame changed the entire focus of medieval Paris. It was far and away the tallest building in the city, and the entire area around it was razed and rebuilt to facilitate the building work. Due to its height, it became the focal point of the city – and probably more revolutionary was the view of their own city that Parisians could avail of from the top of the cathedral. This gave them a sense of the grandeur and reach of the city they would never have had before. Altitude changes things.

Medieval Paris was probably much more debauched than pictured in Victor Hugo’s epic novel of 1831, Notre Dame de Paris. In the late 12th and 13th centuries, the centre of Paris was a den of whores, robbers and beggars and was prone to epidemics of all sorts, as the river was nothing more than a giant sewer. Yet Notre Dame rose majestically out of this fetid gutter to signal to everyone that Paris had arrived – not just as the undisputed capital of France, but as the premier city of Europe.

The site of the cathedral had always been a focal point for the gods in pagan, pre-Christian Paris. Legend persists that its very design maps out the geometry of ancient pre-Christian science, the so-called occultist Hermes science (after the god Hermes, not the handbag), which dates from the ancient religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism. These Persians – ancient Iranians – were a source of deep fascination for occultists of the 19th century such as Victor Hugo (and our own WB Yeats, who joined the Hermetic Order in 1890). Indeed, many believers in the occult contended that the precise angle of the crow’s beak over the portal on the main door of Notre Dame pointed directly to where the Philosopher’s Stone was buried by ancients under the cathedral. (I don’t know all this stuff; I am just reading a fascinating book at the moment, Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey. Well worth the time.)

The cathedral, with its legends, stories and characters (such as the Hunchback), has become synonymous with Paris. You can’t imagine Paris without it, and Parisians are still naturally proud of this immense medieval monument.

It was therefore odd to see that, last week, Russia donated an enormous Christmas tree to the cathedral.

The ‘gift’ followed an appeal to foreign embassies by Monsignor Patrick Jacquin, the rector of Notre Dame. He explained that the cathedral could not afford a Christmas tree (due to a shortage of huge trees, the price tag doubled this year to €80,000). Russia’s embassy quickly stepped in and offered to bring an 80-foot tree thousands of miles overland to the French capital.

Of course, the Russians are playing games because of the EU’s steps to isolate Russia over Ukraine and Crimea. The Russian ambassador to France gave a rather over-elaborate speech last Thursday at the unveiling of the giant tree: “We want to show, by this gesture, that despite the efforts to isolate Russia, the friendship between our two countries is so strong and deep that no politics can destroy it.”

Interestingly, the politics of Europe look destined to be shaped by events in these two countries in the years ahead. Both countries have elections in 2017, the results of which will have serious ramifications for Ireland.

The Russian picture will be blighted by EU sanctions, the slump in the price of oil, a recession, and the stop/start war in eastern Ukraine. As Putin will want to win the parliamentary elections in 2017, expect him to use Ukraine to stoke up populist feeling in Russia. The president’s stance is hugely popular in Russia. It is hard to see the EU upping the sanctions, as they are already having a deleterious impact on Germany’s manufacturing sector. Europe usually does what Germany wants.

However it is in France, for so long the dynamo of the European project, that the EU has much to fear, and where the link to the Kremlin is most obvious.

It is not unlikely that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. Hollande is politically toxic, and the resurrected Sarkozy smells like yesterday’s man. Le Pen is ahead in the polls and her position is strengthening.

It will be stronger financially with the news that a Russian bank with close ties to the Kremlin intends to lend her party, the Front National, €40 million to fight the presidential election. This money is a game changer.

Today, the Front National has its annual convention. They are well ahead in the polls and the French economy is going just the way they want it to go electorally – downwards. Economically, France has for years been pretending to the world that it is a little Germany, but it’s not: it’s a big Italy. Unemployment is rocketing, there is no demand, and Marine Le Pen, rightly, blames the euro. She believes that the deflation incurred by being in the euro is punishing France and rewarding Germany.

She says the euro is bad for France, and it’s hard to disagree. She wants to hold a referendum on the euro. If she gets elected, she aims to take France back to the franc. A far-right president of France, financed by Russia, is a real prospect.

In the years ahead, the European elite will have a lot more to worry about in Paris than the price of Christmas trees at Notre Dame.