Notre Dame of Paris, the symbol of Catholic faith built in honor of the Virgin Mary, is not just a testament to what human endeavor can accomplish, it is also one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries with its cornerstone laid in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III, the cathedral was raised on the foundations of an earlier church. Because of its breathtaking design and works of art, the monument is adored and visited by millions every year.
So it was with heartbreak and distress that people across the world watched as Notre Dame’s spire and roof collapsed because of the flames. And as French President Emmanuel Macron promised that the country was going to rebuild the heart of Paris, private organizations and wealthy businessmen promptly stepped in, vowing to donate millions to the effort.
At a time when many Parisians may be wondering whether the French government could have done more to put a stop to this tragedy, especially by way of more-effective emergency preparedness, it is private men and women who take on the task of rebuilding that matters — not because they will directly benefit from this effort, but because Notre Dame means something bigger and greater than anything they could have conjured up.
As we see in the aftermath of this tragedy, it is private citizens like them who truly care, while governments such as Macron’s will often leave publicly owned monuments on the verge of abandonment. It is only when major incidents like this happen that we truly appreciate private ownership.
A Private Answer to a Government-Owned Mess
The French state has owned Notre Dame since 1905. But because it is a Catholic cathedral, many believe that it is owned by the Catholic Church.
Still, the church is the designated beneficiary. But that only means the state gives it the right to use it for religious purposes. Maintenance and repairs are all the responsibility of the French Ministry of Culture.
Over the years, however, the cathedral became too much of a burden to the French taxpayer, prompting the Diocese of Paris to step in. Since then, the organization known as Friends of Notre Dame de Paris has been raising funds privately to care for the cathedral.
With the efforts to rebuild underway after Monday’s massive fire, the cathedral’s fate is, once again, in private hands — even if the French president is under the spotlight saying the state will take charge.
So far, the billionaire Pinault family pledged 100 million euros ($113 million) to the reconstruction of Notre Dame. Others who also pitched in are L’Oréal, the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, and the French energy company Total. The Arnault family, owners of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury-goods conglomerate, have also vowed to help, pledging to donate 200 million euros.
But despite all the love Notre Dame is now receiving, many wonder whether this fire would have been prevented if the cathedral was owned by the church instead. Furthermore, there were enough concerns with the government-backed effort to put an end to the fire to get many people to question the French government’s effectiveness.
As reported by CNN, many of the hundreds of firefighters who were deployed to the scene of the fire were delayed because of rush hour traffic. And before they were called in, an initial fire alarm sounded at 6:20 p.m., yet the fire was only discovered after a second alarm went off 23 minutes later. Once firefighters arrived at the scene, it took them quite some time to reach the top of the building, where the spire had been engulfed by flames. So as the fire quickly consumed the roof, many questioned whether the damage could have been averted.
Reports coming from Paris claimed it was the firefighters who saved the many relics and works of art trapped inside the church along with the chaplain of the Paris firefighters, Father Jean-Marc Fournier. But perhaps the cathedral would have benefitted from better maintenance and security if it were the property of a private entity.
Perhaps now that Notre Dame is being once again rebuilt, the French (and the whole world) will once again sing the praises of private initiative and ownership.