Notre Dame: What Happens Now?

Examining how the world have reacted to the recent fire destroying much of Europe's most visited cultural icon.

Co-written with Arnaud Latran

Desolation around the Île de la Cité. After a night fighting the fire, Paris’ firemen put out the blaze that was ravaging Notre Dame since 6.30pm. The sacred wonder is saved, however, the heart of the City of Light still mourns the destruction of the Cathedral’s spire and woodwork frame. “The Forest” as it was called, was a masterpiece of Middle-Ages carpentry, made by thousands of trees which had been holding the roof for centuries. Paris cries, and the world cries with it.

Taking control of the incident was difficult for the fire brigade, as the location of Notre Dame on the small island in the centre of Paris meant its heart was hard to reach, and using aerial help to put out the fire would have greatly affected the structure, and was therefore impossible. At 10.00pm news stroke that the fire department was ‘unsure’ the cathedral could be saved.  It is an old adage that tragedy brings people closer together and as social media was already filled with videos of the shocking event, as a growing number of people were gathering around the burning landmark. When the spire collapsed, everyone was terrified and the images were almost instantly put online, with many newspapers illustrating the event with a photograph of this exact moment. The long-awaited news of the possible survival of the monument came late and the whole of France was relieved of the fear of never seeing their cathedral again.

The Kilometre Zero of the French capital city suddenly suffered from a fire, coming from construction works happening inside the structure, which details still have to be clarified. Build in the 12th century, the building is embedded with French history and managed to survive a millennial of revolutions, religious conflicts and wars. Watching Notre Dame burn was an unbearable pain for most Parisians, as the cathedral (the most visited building in Europe) is a symbol of the French capital across the world. It has seen the weddings of the greatest French Kings or Leaders (Henry IV, Napoleon III), the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte and the funerals of multiple French presidents (Charles de Gaulle, Mitterand, Pompidou). It was a place traditionally associated with mourning, and now the world mourns for it.

Outside the French borders, Notre Dame is an icon of culture, thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but is also a place of religious importance worldwide, being a recurring destination for Popes ever since its creation. The church has released a statement “We pray that there will be no injuries, for the fire not to be intentional and for least possible damage to the Church. We express our solidarity with (the) Church in France”. And it appears the prayers have been answered for there have been no reported fatalities. Spain, England, Italy, like most European countries, all had pages of their history written inside its walls. Indeed, for internationals, it is also known for the place where Henri the VI of England became king, where Elizabeth of France married Philippe II of Spain, etc …

Within 24 hours, 800 million euros had been raised by a number of benefactors including 3 million raised through crowdfunding from the French public and the country’s richest families and companies donating 100 million euros (Pinault family or Bettencourt family, owners of the L’Oreal group); up to 200 million (Arnault family, owners of the LVMH group). This is a staggering sum to show support to the cause; a little reminiscent of the Renaissance system of patronage within the Catholic church, in which wealthy families were granted chapels aligning with donations to the church.

However, when money is involved, debates quickly emerges. And shortly after all the announcements of such a sum being donated all at once, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe declared that donations would be deduced from taxes from 60% up to 75%. While some of these generous donors refused this tax deduction, it raised the question of how much the government (ie: the taxpayer) will have to contribute. While the cost of the restoration is unknown we can compare (with care) to similar destructive events.

In 1984 York minster cathedral caught alight and its roof was dropped by firefighters to preserve the rest of the structure. The following 4 years of restoration cost a total £2.25m which, with inflation, amounts to just over £7.1m today. York minster cathedral is, by comparison, a larger cathedral at 160m by 76m compared to Notre Dame’s 130m by 48m. Notre Dame’s roof does, however, saw to 35m. Much comment has been made surrounding the money pledged for restoration. And much criticism as well. While donations are hard to condemn, comments online were raised about why almost 1 billion euros was donated toward “just a cathedral” when there are other “more important matters” (climate urgency, migrant crisis, poverty and hunger in the poorest countries, etc…). One can hope that the rebuild will come well within the total amount raised, with the remaining sum benefitting other good causes globally.

Plans for restoration have already begun and questions raised about how best to reinstate the glory of what once stood. Many have called for an exact replication of ‘The Forest’, however, this comes with its own set of difficulties. For starters, the oak used in the beams no longer grows to the required height in France. In addition, the environmental impact of felling 52 acres of oak trees (originally up to 300 years old at the time of construction in 1163) would be a global outrage for demonstrating excessive privilege trumping sustainability. Some advocates for use of modern techniques (concrete, steel) which wouldn’t burn down and would be quicker or the use of new programs such as hardwood farming. There are solutions that positively demonstrates how current responsible thinking and modern technologies can marry with the ancient craftsmanship of the cathedral to produce a new structure. It is a chance to show what we in the 21st century are capable of achieving for future generations. The possibility of a competition to redesign the spire received its fair share of criticisms and praises, which opens even more debates.


“We will rebuild Notre Dame in 5 years” said French President Emmanuel Macron when we learnt the building would be saved. This specific amount of time could be related to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and is a deadline that will put pressure to think of a solution to the restoration of the roof and spire. While some experts estimates the correct reparation time would be from 10 to 15 years, the message still meant that it would stand again and gave hope back to the French population. In times like this, Parisians, after it suffered from recent terrorist attacks, will stand together and remind themselves of their wonderful cultural heritage. Paris will survive this as it has always survived. Notre Dame will rise from its ashes.