Macron Vows to Rebuild Notre-Dame by 2024, Despite Virus and Other Blows

Macron Vows to Rebuild Notre-Dame by 2024, Despite Virus and Other Blows

PARIS — On the evening of April 15, 2019, the world watched Notre-Dame burn.

Confused tourists pointed their smartphones as smoke billowed out of the cathedral’s rooftop. Horrified Parisians watched from the Seine River’s banks as flames tore through the centuries-old attic, sending the spire crashing into the vaults below. President Emmanuel Macron, beamed to television sets around the world, vowed to rebuild by 2024, when Paris will host the Summer Olympic Games.

But one year later, all the tourists are gone and the streets are empty. Parisians are confined to their homes, as Mr. Macron tries to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from overwhelming France’s hospitals and tanking its economy.

The world’s attention is elsewhere.

“Our days, our thoughts, our lives today are monopolized by this terrible crisis that we are going through,” Mr. Macron, referring to the Covid-19 outbreak, said in a short video published on social media as he thanked “those who yesterday saved” the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and “those who today are rebuilding it.”

All the tributes initially planned for Wednesday to mark the anniversary were scrapped. They included a reception at the Élysée Palace to honor the workers tending to Notre-Dame; an official ceremony with the cathedral choir; and a performance of a musical about Notre-Dame in front of City Hall.

The construction site itself was shut down last month when France went into lockdown, just as workers were about to start delicately removing thousands of scaffolding tubes, twisted and charred by the fire, that still cling on top of the cathedral.

But Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, a former army chief of staff named by Mr. Macron to head the Notre-Dame renovation task force, said that despite the pandemic, the “emotional intensity” of the fire “has not died down.”

“Interest in this construction project has not waned,” he said.

The cathedral, where 13 million visitors used to crowd every year, is still closed to the public, and there have been only two religious ceremonies inside since the fire, including one last week for Good Friday.

“France is now facing two enormous challenges,” General Georgelin said, “rebuilding the cathedral, which in a way is France’s soul,” and confronting a “gigantic sanitary, economic and social crisis.”

Still, the virus and its human toll — over 17,000 people have died in France so far — overshadowed commemorations for a fire that killed no one and left most of the cathedral still standing.

Msgr. Benoist de Sinety, the Paris archdiocese vicar general, told Le Figaro last week that after the fire, “we didn’t hesitate to talk about a catastrophe, or a tragedy.”

“What do those words weigh today?” said Msgr. de Sinety, who represents the archdiocese on the Notre-Dame task force’s board. “It would be a mistake to showcase a monument and a construction project, as important as they may be, when the emergency is now human and social.”

No one denies the differences between the two events. But some see similarities.

“The question we could ask the good Lord is: Why?” said Msgr. Patrick Chauvet, Notre-Dame’s rector. “That is the question I was asking when I was on the plaza one year ago, that is the question I ask yet again today.”

He added, “This first anniversary, at the height of the pandemic, maybe also signals to the world that this 850-year-old injured lady is close to all those who are injured.”

To drive that message home, one tribute did take place on Wednesday. Notre-Dame’s biggest bell — dating from 1683, and made of 13 tons of bronze — rang out at 8 p.m. to “unite” with the thousands of people around France who cheer and clap from their windows every evening to support health workers, General Georgelin said.

A 200-foot crane still towers above the cathedral, a looming reminder of the work that lies ahead after a string of setbacks.

Workers rushed to shore up the building after the fire, which investigators still believe was accidental, caused perhaps by discarded cigarettes or an electrical short-circuit. The vault is punctured by three gaping holes, and the flying buttresses are propped up by giant wooden blocks. A hundred or so sensors monitor Notre-Dame’s every movement.

But construction was halted for weeks last summer because of concerns over lead contamination from the damaged roof and spire. Work picked up again at a much slower pace, with stringent decontamination protocols for the 80 or so workers, who must wear protective gear and shower upon every entry and exit.

Then, bad fall and winter weather — especially strong winds — delayed the schedule even further.

Mr. Macron said on Wednesday that Notre-Dame’s restoration was a “symbol of our people’s resilience, of its ability to overcome hardships,” and that “we will do everything” to stick to the 2024 goal.

Critics say that is increasingly unrealistic.

“I do not believe in it for a minute,” Emmanuel Grégoire, the deputy mayor of Paris, said of the deadline, telling Le Monde this week that legal or public procurement challenges could also delay the project.

But officials like General Georgelin insist that 2024 is an “extremely mobilizing” goal, pointing out that it is a deadline to reopen the cathedral for religious services, not to finish the renovation completely.

“Obviously, everything won’t be done, but the inside will,” General Georgelin said, adding that he expected a two-month delay from the lockdown.

“Two months out of 60 doesn’t justify throwing in the towel and saying that the schedule won’t hold,” he said.

Once the old scaffolding is removed, workers will be able to ascertain the state of the vaults, which are still covered in charred wood and metal, giving architects a better sense of Notre-Dame’s overall sturdiness.

Actual renovation work — and final decisions on how to rebuild the roof and spire — isn’t expected before 2021. But city authorities say the plaza in front of the cathedral and the crypt underneath it will reopen much sooner, as lead decontamination efforts were just ending when the lockdown started.

Money has not been as much of an issue as time. About 340,000 donors pledged nearly $1 billion after the fire. Only about $200 million have been cashed in so far, but most donations are legally binding.

When billionaires whipped out their checkbooks last year for Notre-Dame — right after months of Yellow Vest turmoil — it created an intense debate in France about wealth inequality. Some of that debate has played out again in recent weeks, as some argued France’s public health system could have used similar funds.

When Mr. Macron visited a hospital in Paris in February to discuss the coronavirus crisis, Dr. François Salachas, a neurologist, confronted the president over hospital underfunding.

“When we had to save Notre-Dame, there was no lack of people who were moved,” Dr. Salachas said, in a clip that was widely circulated on social media. “Now we have to save public hospitals, which are going up in flames at the same speed that Notre-Dame almost did.”

Christophe Girard, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of culture, said that “those who were on the front-lines one year ago were the emergency workers, the Red Cross, the firefighters” — the same ones, he noted, who are now on the front-lines of battling the coronavirus.

“The biggest entrepreneurs, the biggest patrons, the biggest companies” had not hesitated to give out millions for the cathedral, Mr. Girard added. “What we are able to do for Notre-Dame, we should be able to do for the most essential things.”

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