Debate over future Notre-Dame spire fuels French divisions

REIMS, France/PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron might have hoped he was striking a note for modernity and openness in announcing an international competition to design a new spire for Notre-Dame cathedral, but he may have opened a can of worms instead.

Notre Dame cathedral is pictured in Paris, France April 18, 2019. Michel Euler/Pool via Reuters

There was already debate about whether his goal of rebuilding the church by 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games, was overly ambitious, but now he’s unsettled those who would prefer to return the national symbol to just how it was.

“Since the spire wasn’t part of the original cathedral,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement late on Wednesday, “the President of the Republic hopes there will be some reflection and a contemporary architectural gesture might be envisaged.”

Computer-generated pictures online included ideas for a soaring glass needle to replace the 91-metre (300 foot) spire, which was added to the cathedral in the mid-1800s, replacing a Medieval one that was removed in 1786.

But that appears to be too much for many French, especially those with a traditional or Catholic bent.

In an online survey conducted by conservative newspaper Le Figaro, more than 70 percent of the 35,000 people who responded said they opposed any contemporary style design.

Francois-Xavier Bellamy, a 33-year-old philosopher who will head the right-of-center Les Republicains party list in next month’s European Parliament elections, said Macron’s government lacked humility in suggesting a modernist rethink.

“We are the inheritors of patrimony, it doesn’t belong to us, and it’s important therefore that we hand it on in the way that we received it,” he told Reuters.

“There are rules in France about protecting national heritage. The President of the Republic is not above the law. It’s not up to him to decide to build a modern spire.”


While Bellamy is a conservative Catholic and might be expected to campaign for returning the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece to exactly how it was before the fire, his views are shared by some architectural historians.

Patrick Demouy, an emeritus professor of medieval history who specializes in the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, said it would be difficult to imagine something starkly different to the 19th century spire, even if its architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was himself quite inventive with his design.

“Personally, I’m in favor of restoring it to how it was because that’s the spire that has imposed itself on the collective memory,” he told Reuters. “It would be hard to perceive (a contemporary spire) because we wouldn’t really recognize it any longer as being Notre-Dame.”

Macron’s culture minister, Franck Riester, said it was important the nation debated the issue and generated ideas. There is likely to be months if not years of discussion before a design -- contemporary or otherwise -- is fixed upon.

“The masterpiece that Viollet-le-Duc left us is exceptional, but we must not dogmatically insist that we recreate an identical cathedral,” he told BFM TV. “We must let the debate take place, see what ideas are presented, and then decide.”

Paris has a track-record of being experimental with its architecture, whether via buildings such as the Pompidou Center, or the glass pyramid at the heart of the Louvre, which blends modernism with classical lines.

Other constructions, such as the 210-metre Montparnasse tower or the vast empty square of the Arche de la Defense, have come in for more criticism, even if they have fans, too.

For Jean-Michel Leniaud, an art historian at the National Institute of Art History, Notre-Dame is special because it is both a work of art and among the nation’s greatest monuments, a source of unity for citizens in times of strife.

“The restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris shouldn’t be the opportunity for creative architects to show off their inventive spark,” he told Reuters. “We should go back to the original, the spire of Viollet-le-Duc,” he said.

“The best way, the most consensual way to overcome this terrible disaster is to return it to the original state.”

Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Michaela Cabrera in Paris; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Toby Chopra