Notre Dame: A Calamity Threatening to Be Repeated Across France

Notre Dame: A Calamity Threatening to Be Repeated Across France

France’s dazzling heritage in stone has proved both beautiful and burdensome for the state, and well beyond its means to maintain.

Notre Dame, Notre Dame fire, Notre Dame cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral was scarred by an extensive fire on April 15, 2019, that collapsed part of its delicate spire. As billionaires’ donations to rebuild the cathedral renewed anger over inequality, the “Yellow Vest” protests in their 23rd week drew 7,000 in the French capital. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

Even though it was one of France’s most iconic sites, Notre Dame cathedral suffered years of neglect and struggled to find the millions it needed for urgent renovations before it was ravaged by fire. But France is replete with tens of thousands of other historic monuments that are at risk. Such an inventory makes the fire at Notre Dame, though a singular catastrophe, one that could be repeated in ways large and small all over a country with a dazzling heritage that has proved well beyond the means of the state to maintain.

The list of disasters or near disasters by fire at the country’s historic monuments, in the last 25 years, is long — and includes notably the flames that engulfed the 17th-century parliament building in Brittany in 1994.

“We’re keeping up our heritage in a minimal manner,” said Alexandre Gady, a leading art historian at the Sorbonne. “There’s just not enough money.”

Faced with its treasure trove of monuments, the French state has essentially thrown up its hands and hoped for the best. It spends roughly $360 million a year on these historic monuments, known in France as the patrimony, or patrimoine, barely a 10th of the Culture Ministry budget, and down 15 percent between 2010 and 2018.


That budget is up again in 2019, roughly to previous levels, thanks to a special outlay for a Renaissance château President Emmanuel Macron took an interest in, Villers-Cotterêts, which had fallen into ruin. The funding situation for monuments has been so desperate that last year Macron’s government launched a scratch-and-play lottery game to raise money, under the auspices of a mellifluous television personality, Stephane Bern, whose history program has done much to raise awareness of the country’s heritage in monuments.

Bern, who has been Macron’s adviser on France’s historic monuments, raised nearly $50 million last year to protect dozens of sites identified among over 2,000 considered in great danger.

“I’ve been fighting for years to say, we’ve got to protect this heritage,” Bern said in an interview. “It’s all dependent on humans, and it’s a very fragile situation.”