(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If there was any comfort to be taken from the tragic fire to befall one of Europe’s great landmarks and Paris’s most-visited, it was the speed at which the call for help was answered. With Notre Dame still smoldering, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild the great cathedral and called for donors. Pledges came flooding in.
France’s luxury industry led the way, with Bernard Arnault, the billionaire founder of the LVMH fashion conglomerate, promising 200 million euros ($226 million) and Francois Pinault of rival fashion group Kering 100 million euros. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo offered money from city coffers and promised to organize an international donor conference. This is a heartening start.
But while Macron has rallied the troops, others will be writing the big checks. The French government owns Notre Dame Cathedral, but apart from a small annual maintenance stipend of 2 million euros a year from the ministry of culture, and some limited repair works, it had done little to maintain it. To do more could be challenged as a religious subsidy and fall foul of France’s 1905 law separating church and state – that is is if the money could be spared from hard-pressed public coffers in the first place.
As my colleague Mohamed El-Erian observed, the blame game around Notre Dame’s gaping wound is likely to be ugly. The fire was no natural disaster; it may have been an accident, but it certainly wasn’t inevitable. It is legitimate that questions will be asked about how to better ensure other landmarks don’t go up in flames.
The state of Notre Dame’s disrepair had been evident for years to the Archdiocese, the steward of the cathedral. Until a few years ago though, according to 2017 reporting by Vivienne Walt for Time magazine, the government had kept private areas – from which the decrepit upper levels could be accessed – off limits. Here’s what Walt found in those upper stories:
“Here, the site seemed not spiritually uplifting but distressing. Chunks of limestone lay on the ground, having fallen from the upper part of the chevet, or the eastern end of the Gothic church. One small piece had a clean slice down one side, showing how recently it had fallen. Two sections of a wall were missing, propped up with wood. And the features of Notre Dame’s famous gargoyles looked as worn away as the face of Voldemort.”
A spokesperson from the culture ministry told Walt that Notre Dame’s case wasn’t the most pressing and the cathedral shouldn’t expect much from the government. “France has thousands of monuments.”
There were debates about whether Notre Dame should charge visitors to fund repairs – as St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London already do. But some in the French senate argued that this would effectively amount to a tax on a place of worship and would breach equality laws if synagogue, mosques and temples were free for entry. The entrance fees were never levied.
The Friends of Notre Dame, a non-profit organized by the archdiocese, launched a campaign to raise more than $100 million for repair work. But this effort ran up against two obstacles. First, while regular churchgoers may contribute small amounts to collections, the French are steeped in state-mandated secularism and so regarded donations to religious institutions suspiciously. Secondly, they are heavily taxed, so they also expect the state to look after major cultural sites. (Americans, the organization found, were more eager to help. After many U.S. visitors inquired about how they might donate, the nonprofit registered as a charity in the U.S.)
France isn’t the only government that struggles to maintain its heritage as budgets are squeezed. In Italy, the 2010 collapse of the House of Gladiators in Pompeii, which had been steadily damaged by rain, heavy tourist traffic and poor maintenance, was partly blamed on big cuts to arts and heritage funding. Smaller disasters seem almost routine. Few outsiders noticed when in August the wooden roof of a 16th century church collapsed in Rome.
When Diego Della Valle, chairman of Italian luxury shoe company Tod’s SpA, pledged $33 million in 2014 to save Rome’s crumbling Colosseum, he argued that there was a greater need for the Anglo-Saxon model in which private donors and foundations contribute heavily. He has a point.
In Notre Dame’s case, money, expertise, and time are the only solutions and the right ones for now. Macron, whose administration had already been rocked by the Gilets Jaunes protests, had little choice but to promise to rebuild. The histories of many ancient churches are a cycle of war damage, vandalism, fire and reconstruction.
“It is difficult not to sigh, not to be indignant at the degradations, the countless mutilations to which time and man have simultaneously subjected the venerable monument,” French novelist Victor Hugo wrote of Notre Dame. It’s hard not to be even more indignant at the way such a landmark was allowed to reach this point of disrepair.
(Clarifies third paragraph to show government position reflects 1905 law separating church and state.)
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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