Could aid for Notre Dame help rebuild France’s crumbling history?

Why We Wrote This

While the Notre Dame Cathedral has drawn global attention over its need for repairs, it is far from the only French monument so wanting. Could the fire highlight the situation at other crumbling sites?

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Carpenter trainees work at the Les Compagnons du Devoir workshop in Gennevilliers near Paris on April 24. The head of Compagnons du Devoir alerted the French government that there was a lack of manpower, which could slowdown the reconstruction of Notre Dame.

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While private donors from France and around the world have raised more than $1 billion to save Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral after the April 15 fire, other impoverished monuments have not garnered nearly as much sympathy.

The French state currently spends around $360 million on cultural heritage, just 3% of the Culture Ministry’s annual budget. Around 4% of historical monuments are owned by the state – like Notre Dame – while the rest must rely on private donations. Petit patrimoine – small heritage sites like privately inherited homes, castles, or village windmills – often feel the brunt of the burden.

That was the case in Choisy-au-Bac, a town in the Oise region, which leaned heavily on individual philanthropy to repair its aging Sainte-Trinité church. The town raised about one-fourth of building costs for the first two of three construction phases. Now the town hall hopes the third phase will benefit from the donating spree that followed the Notre Dame fire.

“People are becoming more aware after the Notre Dame fire of a desire to preserve our cultural heritage,” says Deputy Mayor Cécile Gambier. “It’s going to make them think, this monument won’t be here forever. We shouldn’t wait until it’s falling apart to try to save it.”

The village church in Saint-Gilles is not a thing of great beauty. It was converted in the mid-19th century from a storehouse and vat rooms that had belonged to a local winery, and it feels like it. A priest comes to celebrate Mass only four times a year and the building serves mainly as an officially recognized refuge for bats.

But when the bells ring out from the church belfry – which they now do every half hour, as well as at noon and suppertime – it’s a reminder for anyone within earshot of the dedication of locals to save this village mainstay. When Maxime Petitjean became mayor in 2014 of this sleepy, canal-side village in Burgundy, the church bells were in complete disrepair.

“I’m not necessarily a believer,” says Mr. Petitjean, “but a village needs church bells.”

But fixing the bells and the automatic system came with a bill of $38,000. The village raised $15,500 from local and national government institutions and collected $14,000 from private donors. The town hall covered the rest of the work itself.

The village church in Saint-Gilles is one of thousands of churches, cathedrals, and other historical buildings in France in need of repairs. And while private donors from France and around the world have raised more than $1 billion to save Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral after its iconic spire went up in flames on April 15, other impoverished monuments have not garnered nearly as much sympathy.

As state funds run dry, the French are looking to grassroots efforts like startup organizations and crowdfunding platforms to save local churches and other beloved monuments. In a nation that squirms at the flaunting of money, the Notre Dame fire has shone new light on the need for more funding dedicated to cultural heritage and a shift in how people here see their role in preserving it.

“We can hope that there will now be a realization on the part of the public that local heritage is fragile and that they can contribute to its preservation,” says Nathalie Heinich, an author and sociologist on cultural heritage at Paris’ National Center for Scientific Research. “But we don’t have much of a culture of private philanthropy in France. Most people assume that since we pay taxes, it’s the state that should invest, and if we donate, it’s out of personal enjoyment and not due to any moral obligation.”

‘A serious lack of funds’

The French state currently spends around $360 million on cultural heritage, just 3% of the Culture Ministry’s annual budget. Around 4% of historical monuments are owned by the state – like Notre Dame – while the rest must rely on private donations.

Last year, French television presenter Stéphane Bern launched the country’s first heritage lottery in an attempt to get citizens involved in preserving France’s most dilapidated monuments. But unlike after the Notre Dame fire, funding came up short.

“The initiative showed us that there is a serious lack of funds,” says Julien Noblet, an architectural historian at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. “We’re always in need of more money, especially when it comes to local heritage projects.”

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
The village church in Saint-Gilles, France, recently saw its bells, belfry, and entrance porch repaired with state funds and donations by local residents.

Mr. Noblet says that petit patrimoine – small heritage sites like privately inherited homes, castles, or village windmills – often feel the brunt of the burden, not benefiting from much state help and relying primarily on local generosity.

That was the case in Choisy-au-Bac, a town in the Oise region, which leaned heavily on individual philanthropy to repair its aging Sainte-Trinité church. When the state couldn’t find enough money, the town hall sent out letters to locals urging them to contribute and held a fundraising concert in the church’s honor.

The town raised about one-fourth of building costs for the first two of three construction phases. Now the town hall hopes the third phase will benefit from the donating spree that followed the Notre Dame fire, which saw France’s wealthiest families donating as much as 200 million euros ($225 million) each toward reconstruction efforts.

“People are becoming more aware after the Notre Dame fire of a desire to preserve our cultural heritage,” says Cécile Gambier, deputy mayor in charge of culture and heritage in Choisy-au-Bac. “It’s going to make them think, this monument won’t be here forever. We shouldn’t wait until it’s falling apart to try to save it.”

Meanwhile, the National Heritage Fund (La Fondation du Patrimoine) continues its drive to preserve the country’s local heritage. The organization, which funnels donations from individuals to cultural heritage projects and offers donors a 66% tax deduction, currently manages 3,000 campaigns around the country.

At least one of its projects has seen an uptick in donations since the Notre Dame fire, and the National Heritage Fund says it hopes the trend will continue.

“Smaller heritage sites are what preserve a town’s attractiveness, provide jobs, and contribute to the desire to live in a place,” says Célia Verot, the managing director of the National Heritage Fund. “We hope that the generosity we’ve seen towards Notre Dame will extend further to the rest of the country.”

Often smaller or lesser-known heritage sites fail to raise money due to a lack of visibility. Mayor Christian Teyssèdre of Rodez, an ancient city in the south of France, has railed publicly against his region’s government for quickly offering $1.7 million to help repair Notre Dame. Last year it refused to contribute anything to the restoration of Rodez’s Gothic cathedral, even though bits are falling off it.

And just outside Paris, the Basilica of Saint-Denis – a medieval abbey church from the 12th century – has been fighting to restore its north bell tower and spire since they were destroyed by a series of tornadoes in the mid-1800s. Even though the basilica boasts stained-glass rose windows and an overall aesthetic almost identical to Notre Dame, it still lacks the several millions of euros it needs for reconstruction.

“The Basilica of Saint-Denis is fundamental in terms of history. There’s no such thing as a small historical building. Everything is history,” says Sandrine Victor, a lecturer in medieval studies at the Institut National Universitaire Champollion in Albi, France. “But the priority [for the state] is on tourism.”

Citizen groups step in

As national campaigns fail local heritage sites, a trend toward private philanthropy is quietly brewing. In Saint-Denis, locals created the nonprofit Suivez la Flèche as a way to raise money for their basilica, while citizen group La Tour de Marmande was launched to save the crumbling Marmande castle in the west of France. Crowdfunding sites Dartagnans and Adopte un Château allow people to adopt one of the approximately 600 castles in danger of disappearing across France.

At the same time, there’s also a need for more manual labor – especially those trained in restoring historical buildings. The Compagnons du Devoir, a guild association that trains some 10,000 people each year in craft and medieval traditions, alerted the French government in the wake of the Notre Dame fire that more trained workers were needed in the building trade.

It’s a renewed call to nonprofits like Rempart, which helps individuals get involved in restoration efforts. Since 1979, Rempart has helped ordinary citizens find volunteer work on construction sites of national heritage projects around the country.

Still, for many town halls in France, money is the core issue when it comes to repairing their local church or windmill. Mayor Petitjean of Saint-Gilles thinks that most people are attached to their local heritage and are more likely to give to something in their village than to a national project. But the call for donations hasn’t been easy.

“I think we did quite well to raise as much as we did from villagers,” he says. “But we could have done with a donation like the ones some millionaires are making now to Notre Dame.”

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