A Dispassionate Commentary on the Notre Dame Fire

The huge blaze at Notre Dame dominated the evening skyline in Paris on Monday.

Social media erupted in a frenzy of virtue-signaling this week, with people who wouldn’t normally be seen dead in a church professing their absolute utter grief at the Notre Dame fire in Paris.

People who have visited France once, and seen the cathedral only from the outside while on a lunchtime river cruise along the Seine are now boasting about being inconsolable and feeling that something inside them died.  And so on, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

Indeed, some opportunists were buying sponsored posts to publicly lament about Notre Dame in the hope of adding new followers from people who thought they were being noble and public-spirited.

There was also an astonishing rush to contribute to the restoration of the cathedral, and within four days, over €1 billion had been raised or pledged, and fundraising is continuing.  There are, at last count, 199 GoFundMe campaigns for funds, as well as countless other organizations and individuals rushing to press money into the hands of – well, who exactly?  A quick glance at the GoFundMe campaigns shows a very wide divergence of groups who might be the lucky recipients of funds, whether directly related to the fire or not.

The rush to contribute to repairs is particularly surprising when you consider :

(a)  No-one has any idea what the cost to repair/restore the cathedral will be.

(b)  There are controversial discussions about “modernizing” the cathedral and its spire, so people don’t even know what they’re contributing towards.

(c)  The cathedral is owned by the Government of France (the French Ministry of Culture, to be precise).  Can France not afford to pay for repairs – does it now need to go begging all around the world, like a third world country after a typhoon?

(d)  No official advice has been given as to how much of the loss might be covered (or not) by insurance.  If insurance covers the loss, are any contributions needed?  On the other hand, if the French Government decided to “self-insure” to save on the premiums, surely it is only fair that the flip-side of self-insuring is accepting the risk of loss and being ready to pay for any such claims out of one’s own pocket.

So let’s put this all in some perspective, if indeed that is possible.

The Overstated Importance of Notre Dame

Because Paris is one of the top few cities in the world in terms of international visitors, perhaps ranking third (Bangkok first, London second, then Paris, followed by Dubai and Singapore), and because the Notre Dame Cathedral has a very prominent and visible location on a small island in the middle of the Seine River (the Île de la Cité), placing it on the main tourist route through Paris, it has long had a disproportionate and perhaps undeserved prominence.

This prominence is not validated by the importance given to the structure either by the people using it (the Roman Catholic Church) or its actual owners (not the Catholic church, but the French Government, this being one of 70 churches the government owns in Paris alone, in addition to hundreds more around the rest of the country, some much larger, some much older).

The Church designated it a Minor Basilica in 1805, an honorary title with little meaning.  There are 1756 other Minor Basilicas around the world.

The building isn’t even listed as a World Heritage site (although six other churches in France are).

The French Government has massively and deliberately neglected the maintenance on the church, with a present minor restoration program being very thinly funded (about €6 million at a time when it is believed that well over €100 million is required for more general restoration).  The building has been quietly crumbling and decaying, unloved by its owner.

Not to be too harsh about this, but currently the best guesses for the cause of the fire can be described as arising from negligence to establish and maintain appropriate safety and fire standards in the building, as reported here.  It seems the fire may have started from a short-circuit in the wiring.  The tragedy of the fire, not much talked about at present, is that a fire alarm promptly sounded (at 6.20pm) but the fire department, when responding, was unable to find the fire or even work out which of the many sensors in the building was the one detecting fire.

So they left after only the most cursory of inspections, deciding it was a false alarm.  It was only when a second alarm went off 23 minutes later, at 6.43pm, and the fire was now becoming apparent that the fire department, when it returned, started to actually do something about the fire.  Better wiring, and/or a better fire alarm/sensor system, a few sprinklers in the area where it is thought to have started, and a more careful investigation of the first alarm could have either prevented the fire or saved the building in a timely manner.

Although now being venerated as some unique wondrous structure, in reality, the cathedral is neither unusually large, unusually tall, or unusually old.

Yes, it is a distinctive medieval Gothic style building.  Construction started in 1163, and continued until eventual completion in 1345, and its distinctive spire (destroyed in the fire) was a comparatively recent addition, added in the 1840s during a major reconstruction of the structure.  There had been an earlier spire, but it had been poorly maintained and was removed in 1786.

It is considered to probably be the 42nd largest cathedral in the world, depending on if you measure floor area or volume or seating capacity or whatever other parameter, and the fifth largest in France (the largest is in Amiens, then Reims, Strasbourg and Bourges).

Much of the stained glass is relatively modern rather than original.  Many of the bells are also relatively new, although often recast from earlier bells, and the organ is also more new than old – the oldest pipes date to the 18th century, while the keyboards and other “innards” are generally from the 20th or even 21st century.

The church’s treasures, including the purported “Crown of Thorns” worn by Jesus prior to his crucifixion (but rather improbably now covered in gold braid, which we’ll wager was not present when Jesus wore it ) are nothing to do with the structure of the Cathedral itself, and in any case, are normally stored out of public view in the basement, and happily were not damaged.

Even its name isn’t particularly special.  Many other churches in France are also called Notre Dame (“Our Lady”, a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus) including three of the four larger churches.  But, and probably because more people visit Paris than Amiens, Reims, or Strasbourg, if you talk about Notre Dame without qualification, everyone assumes you’re referring to the Parisian church, not one of the other larger ones.

The church’s fame has also been augmented by featuring in the popular 19th century Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

None of this is to decry the beauty and majesty of the building.  And, yes, it absolutely should be restored, and it is a national shame that the French haven’t better cared for it to date.

But we didn’t feel moved to share with the world our personal sorrow, and most of all, we see no reason to contribute money to the French government for the repair of the building that, as likely as not, was harmed through the government’s past disinterest, neglect and failure to observe basic safety/fire/electrical standards.

The Insignificance of the Cost of the Repairs

No-one really has any idea at present what it will cost to repair the building, but quite likely it may be a lot less than the €1 billion already offered.  The main damage seems to be the destroyed roof and steeple; the primary structure of the church is intact and, as can so far be determined, unharmed.

Of concern to traditionalists is that the government is holding an international competition for a new design of steeple, and indeed, the roof itself will probably require new construction techniques because there is a shortage of appropriate timber to provide beams as was originally the case.

We don’t mind using modern techniques that are then “dressed up” to appear similar to the traditional construction, but a new design of steeple risks going off the rails entirely and becoming garishly ugly and totally at odds with the rest of the building.  A nation that approves structures such as the Georges Pompidou Center (no, that isn’t temporary scaffolding in the picture, that is the way the building was designed to look) should probably not be trusted with a new design for a Medieval/Gothic church steeple!

The eager fundraising is already draining funds that are definitely/urgently needed for other French buildings – for example, a charity wine auction in London that was going to raise £1 million for the Palace of Versailles has now repurposed itself for the church.  And our guess is that the French Govt sees this as a windfall and a chance to not only repair the fire damage but to do all the other deferred maintenance that has been overlooked and desperately needed, too.  It is an ill wind that blows no good, it would seem.

But does the French government really need our money?  It seems ridiculous to describe €1 billion as insignificant, but for a large government or even private corporation, it isn’t much (it is about the same as four 777 airplanes, and Apple, in the first quarter of 2019 alone, made a $20 billion profit).

The French government has an annual expenditure budget of about €2 trillion.  Even if the restoration of the cathedral does cost €1 billion, and say it is spread over ten years (French President Macron wants it done in five, experts predict closer to twenty years), that represents 1/20,000th of the government’s total expenditures during that time period.

That’s so small and inconsequential as to be less even than the smallest rounding error.  To put it another way, if you earn $100,000, the impact on you, proportionally, would be $5.

The Bottom Line

If you feel moved to contribute, we suggest you don’t use money that you’d otherwise give to another cause.

The chances are the other cause(s) you would support still strongly need your help, and the chances also are not only that Notre Dame’s repairs would/will be paid for entirely by the French government in any case, but furthermore, that there has already been more money raised than is needed to repair the fire damage, and also to give the entire structure a massive restoration too.

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