The restoration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which was greatly damaged during the fire of April 15, is sparking heated debate in France.

On the day after the blaze, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his desire to “rebuild” the cathedral “even more beautifully” within five years. The government also indicated support for a “contemporary architectural gesture,” especially in the restoration of the spire.

To this extent, a bill was adopted by the Councils of Ministries on April 24. Article 8 of that bill notably provides for the “creation [by order] of a public institution aimed to conceive, achieve and coordinate the restoration and conservation works” of Notre Dame. Article 9 provides that the ad hoc institution can free itself from laws governing historical preservation. 

These provisions have given rise to a wave of protest throughout the country. In a joint statement, 1,170 prominent experts in the heritage and preservation field expressed their concern and publicly questioned the president about the risks of such a law.

The bill, which was adopted by the National Assembly on May 11, was heavily amended by the French Senate during the night of May 27. The restoration bill approved by the Senate endorses the establishment of a national fundraising body to manage the countless donations made by private individuals, companies and communities to finance the restoration. It also increases the tax deduction for the donations of private individuals and makes it retroactive to April 15 to include the earliest donations.

 

The controversy of the five-year deadline

The main amendments to the bill concern the controversial Articles 8 and 9. The senators are seeking to list the government’s ad hoc institution as an administrative public institution under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture.

Article 9, which would have allowed the government to bend the rules on urban planning, environmental protection and public ownership, was entirely canceled, with an almost unanimous consent among the senatorial working groups.

The senators also castigated the haste with which the executive is planning the restoration process. “The French don’t expect a feat” conservative Senator Bruno Retailleau told Libération. “The only gesture that our fellow citizens expect is not a modern gesture, but a gesture of faithfulness.”

 

Notre Dame must be restored how it was

The Senate also added to the original draft that the restoration works should “respect the authenticity and integrity of the monument,” including the spire, and “restore it according to its last known visual state before the blaze,” specifying that any use of different materials from the original ones should be justified.

The amended bill will now be debated again by the National Assembly, and could be further amended. A bill must be approved by both houses of France’s Parliament to come into force, but in case of disagreement, the National Assembly has the last word.

 

A choice of civilization

“The recommendations of the Senate offer a very good reflection and seem to go in the right direction,” Édouard de Lamaze, president of the French Observatory for Religious Heritage (OPR), told the Register.

According to him, the initiatives directed by the president of the Senate’s Culture Committee, Catherine Morin-Dessailly, are typically undertaken in close collaboration with French historical conservation experts. “It is not a mere political act; it is a great movement of thought shared by many people in France. I hope the National Assembly will follow the experts’ recommendations and won’t ignore such a great movement,” he said.

In his opinion, if the National Assembly contradicts the Senate, it should provide sound solutions relying on technical and philosophical opinions, which hasn’t been the case so far. “The politicians cannot interfere in every sphere of society without taking into account the experts’ point of view,” he said.

“What the OPR didn’t like in the original bill was the great freedom granted to the 21st century, to the detriment of the past. If the 21st century desires to leave its mark on the world, it should create a brand-new monument which will be a testimony of its history,” de Lamaze added, warning against the temptation to believe that we are the representatives of a new order, freed from the past. “All the civilizations that have desired to cancel the past were seen over time as destructive and imperialist civilizations.”

While recalling that the French are attached to their heritage and history, he pointed out that religious monuments are the main symbols of every civilization, whether Christian, Inca or Hindu. “The religious heritage is to be maintained through history” he said. “The religious monuments, as a synonym of civilization, must be respected in their origin, in their purity and entirety.”