France’s attention turns to rebuilding of Notre Dame

Bells ring out across France as debate begins on spending details of €1.1bn funds

Bells rang all over France in a magnificent homage to Notre Dame cathedral at 6.50pm on Wednesday, 48 hours after a devastating fire broke out in the attic of the mother of cathedrals.

Crowds formed in front of the Sacré Coeur and Saint-Sulpice in Paris, where first lady Brigitte Macron attended a Holy Week Mass.

The positive, forward-looking tone set by President Emmanuel Macron in a televised address on Tuesday night has taken hold. The words "reconstruct" and "rebuild" recur in all official pronouncements and in most news headlines.

The weekly cabinet meeting was entirely devoted to Notre Dame. Mr Macron formally launched the reconstruction of the cathedral at a later meeting with the prime minister, six cabinet ministers, the head of Unesco, the mayor of Paris, the archbishop of Paris and officials in charge of architectural heritage.


Prime minister Edouard Philippe announced that a draft law intended to provide a legal framework for the reconstruction will be presented next week.

More than €1.1 billion has already been raised. Mr Philippe said 75 per cent of contributions of up to €1,000 will be tax exempt, while donations of more than €1,000 carry a 66 per cent deduction against tax. An earlier law, which gives a 60 per cent deduction for patronage of the arts, will apply to large corporations.

The tax deductions have created the first controversy of the reconstruction effort, with opposition politicians noting that taxpayers will have to make up the revenue shortfall. The Pinault family, who have pledged €100 million, said they will not claim the deduction.

Mr Philippe said an international competition will choose an architect “to endow Notre Dame with a new spire adapted to the techniques and challenges of our era”.

Spire options

The government must decide whether to copy the original 13th-century spire, which was lost in the revolution, or the 19th-century spire erected by Viollet-le-Duc. Or it could commission a contemporary work. Several cathedrals, including Rouen, have wrought iron spires.

A similar dilemma is posed by the replacement of “the forest”, the 100m-long, 10m-high wooden roof which was reduced to ashes. Some 1,300 oak trees were required to build it in the 13th century.

There is scepticism that Mr Macron's five-year deadline to rebuild the cathedral in time for the Paris Olympics can be met. "There are not enough stocks of wood in France already sawed for such a construction," Sylvain Charlois, the head of France's leading timber company, told Agence France Presse.

France may opt for a concrete roof, as Reims did after German shellfire burned its cathedral in the first World War. Or it could use metal, as Chartres did when its wooden roof burned in 1836.

The city of Paris will hold a ceremony of homage on Thursday afternoon “to all those who helped save Notre Dame cathedral”. The prelude from Bach’s cello suite No 1 will be played. The mayor of Paris, the rector of Notre Dame and the commander of the Paris fire brigade will all make speeches.

Bell tower priority

Firemen recounted their overnight battle at a press conference on Wednesday. Access to the bell towers on the façade was a major difficulty, said deputy commander Philippe Demay. He described the winding stairs up the north tower, familiar to millions of past visitors. "It is very small and narrow. There is not much light and our equipment is heavy," Mr Demay said. "When we finally got to the balcony, we saw a catastrophic scene, with the roof burning."

Images from police drones led firemen to conclude that the roof could not be saved. So they concentrated on the bell towers and protecting works inside the cathedral with hoses. Once the spire collapsed into the nave, the firemen had to be replaced by a robot which was used to lower the temperature.

Reconstruction has taken on a dual, allegorical meaning. “We are a people of builders. We have so much to reconstruct,” Mr Macron said on Tuesday night.

That theme was echoed by the philosopher of aesthetics Mikael Labbé in Libération. Labbé quoted Winston Churchill regarding bomb damage at the end of the second World War: "We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us."

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor