Jeremy Harding · What next for Notre-Dame?
The fire in Notre-Dame de Paris was extinguished in the small hours of 16 April. But residual heat from the blaze has left several brush fires smouldering. The first concerns the restoration and how to go about it. President Macron’s promise to rebuild within five years has led to conservative fears that the cathedral is in for a going over by ‘starchitects’ whose sense of its history – and its sacramental character – may take second place to professional amour propre. A lot of this anxiety is focused on the spire, which crashed onto the roof at dusk on 15 April: 750 tons of burning wood and molten lead, edified by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who won the commission to restore Notre-Dame in the 1840s. (A 13th-century original had been taken down, section by section, between 1786 and 1792 on health and safety grounds.)
Fundamentalists – Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National), for instance, or the leader of Les Républicains, Laurent Wauquiez – acknowledge that the spire was a 19th-century folly. Even so they envisage a facsimile project with the medieval roof restored intact and the spire rebuilt as a replica. In a dig at Macron, Le Pen has suggested that a bo-bo rooftop eatery is the wrong way to go. The centre-right sees an opportunity for the guild of elite artisans known as the Compagnons du Devoir: highly skilled technicians, including roofers, masons and carpenters, who can restore a dilapidated château, the façade of a Romanesque church or a brick shithouse, all to heritage specifications. Disasters are a call to arms for the compagnons, who languish without big commissions.
On 17 April the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, announced an international competition for architects to reimagine the building. Among the early sketches put about by celebrity partnerships, glass is the medium of preference. Norman Foster’s idea – ‘sharp British’, according to the Times – involves an exquisite crystal spire and a glass roof to ‘illuminate the space below’. Godart + Roussel (France) also advocate a salubrious deluge of light from above, with a walkway and – despite the austerity of their draft – the likelihood sooner or later of a rooftop café. A glass floor above the transept would allow every tourist to become her own David Attenborough, gazing down at worshippers in a submarine world of stone, as they glide forward to nibble at the Host.
Another suggestion from a practice in São Paulo is for a roof and spire entirely in stained glass: in a nocturnal simulation, the spire is reminiscent of Gaudí – or is it Blackpool? – and the colours of the roof are garish. Despite the judicious use of such words as ‘divine’, ‘heaven’, even ‘God’ in several of these informal specs, caveats from the faithful are commonplace on Instagram and Facebook, and occasionally the architects come in for a pasting, as they have in the past. The ravages of time and political upheavals, Victor Hugo observed in Notre-Dame de Paris, had left their marks on the cathedral, but ‘a horde of academic architects’ were to blame for its worst scars. No one has come up with an eccentric Ruskinian defence of ruins: the site of an extinguished fire is not romantic; the restoration will push money around Paris and help to compensate for losses in tourist revenue.
Funding for the restoration is another inexhaustible source of argument. By the end of last week, more than €750 million had been given by the general public – four organisations are authorised by the government to receive donations – or pledged by wealthy individuals and corporations. According to UNTEC, the union of construction economists, the likely cost of restoration is between €300 and €600 million. These figures sound optimistic, but they have added to the sense that the wealthy moved with indecent haste, in a lavish bidding war to get out in front of the collective reconstruction effort that Macron urged with his ‘tous ensemble’ when he showed up outside the cathedral on the night of the fire.
‘From each according to his ability’ – why not? But the business dynasties and corporations that came forward are now under a pall of suspicion. Too much spare cash, it’s said, is swilling around at the top, enabling any grandee to toss a million or so at the charred roof of an emblematic building. After Macron won the presidency in 2017, businesses were given a phased reduction in corporate tax, in some cases from 33 to 25 per cent (though he has now promised personal income tax cuts for the low-paid, too, to be paid for in part by closing corporate tax loopholes). In 2017 he also abolished the global wealth tax and replaced it with a much narrower levy on real estate values, with a loss to the exchequer of more than €3 billion. It looked as though the wealthy were being bribed to hang around as grudging guests in their own country.
Tax-deductible giving is another point of contention sharpened by the damage to Notre-Dame. Total, which contrived for years to pay almost no corporate tax in France, has pledged €100 million to Notre-Dame; François-Henri Pinault (Christie’s, Château Latour, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci) has come forward with €100 million; his luxury goods rival Bernard Arnault (Louis Vuitton, Moët-Hennessy) has raised him to €200 million. One problem for the broader public, including modest donors to the restoration – contributions of up to €1000 are 75 per cent deductible – is to know whether corporations are putting the big sums about, or the families that own them. Companies can deduct 60 per cent of the value of a donation from their corporate tax bill, up to 0.5 per cent of their annual turnover. The terms are more generous for individuals, who can deduct 66 per cent of the amount they donate, up to a ceiling of 20 per cent of their annual taxable income. Is wealth being shuttled between two ledgers – the firm’s and the family’s – by astute accountants in order to raise the philanthropic profile and maximise the tax advantages for both?
Without this ostentatious giving, the French state – which owns the cathedral – would have to foot the bill another way, perhaps with an issue of bonds, or by redirecting funds from other heritage sites and public monuments in disrepair. Notre-Dame itself was already in poor shape at the time of the fire, scaffolded for costly renovations on the roof, the spire, much of the upper stonework and the flying buttresses: one of them has leaned against the structure for years like a buckled Zimmer frame, as others held the walls in place with a nonchalant air.
Even if the high-end pledges are coming in at 40 per cent of their nominal value, the state is still receiving a net contribution of around €300 million, and it isn’t obvious that socialism in one country would have raised this level of funding without tiresome tweaks to the five-year plan. But two years into the Macron presidency, France is wary of its ultra-rich, which may be why Pinault was quick to forswear any tax deduction on his offer: no question, he said, of ‘French tax-payers bearing the burden’.
Notre-Dame looked like it was done for on the night of 15 April. Tribal arguments began the following day, like the rows that break out in a family after a death, allowing everyone to retire from their grief. In Gérard de Nerval’s poem ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’, time catches up with the building like a wolf riding down a steer, forcing its ‘massive frame’ to stumble under the assault. Nerval was widely tweeted after the fire, but happily, it's no longer apposite: the cathedral has survived. In his essay ‘Magie’, published in the 1890s, Mallarmé was sure that the original gargoyles, and Viollet-le-Duc's chimerae, would ‘never fall’. Let's hope that Mallarmé got that much right.