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Sacré-Coeur: A monument that still divides Parisians

Connexion's Jane Hanks explores why - despite its appeal to tourists - Sacré-Coeur has long been the centre of controversy in Paris 

The Basilique du Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre is – along with the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame Cathedral – one of the great symbols of the French capital.

The beauty of the building’s domes, its white stone and its position at the highest point of the city with a magnificent view over Paris attract 10million visitors a year.

Despite its appeal to tourists, it has long been the centre of controversy in Paris and it is only in 2021 that it will finally become listed as a historic monument after approval from Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot in October.

Père Jacques Benoist, a specialist on the history of the basilique, said the reasons for its late recognition are mainly political.

“At the end of the 19th century, there were two Frances – the Catholics and the establishment on one side, and republicans on the other who wanted to see a division between the Church and the state.

“There was a clash between the two sides on every aspect of public life and architecture was no exception.

“The republicans welcomed the Eiffel Tower but despised Sacré-Coeur. They associated its construction with the massacre of the Communards.”

The Communards were members of a working-class movement which took power for a very short period from March 18 to March 28, 1871.

They did so soon after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war when Paris was besieged and the poor went hungry. During the war, the ruling classes had escaped Paris and were in Versailles, allowing the Communards to establish a government they called the Paris Commune.

The response from the official government was to bring in soldiers. Thousands of Parisians were killed immediately or executed later. To this day, many Parisians remain bitter about the massacre.

When building of the Sacré-Coeur began, socialists saw it as a failed attempt at atonement by the establishment

Writer Emile Zola made reference to it in his novel Trois Villes: “I can’t think of any nonsense more imbecile, Paris crowned and dominated by this idolatry temple, built to the glorification of the absurd.”

More recently, Lionel Jospin, former leader of the socialist party and prime minister 1997-2002, said that if he could destroy any monument, it would be the Sacré-Coeur because it was a symbol of “obscurantism, bad taste and reactionary”.

Feelings run deep on this subject.

Père Jacques said a woman he talked to recently in the communal vegetable garden near where he lives refused to continue their conversation when she knew his connections with Sacré-Coeur, saying she was a supporter of the Communards.

The Sacré-Coeur website and Père Jacques argue that the connection to the Commune is a false idea to be dismissed.

They say the idea came from two philanthropists – businessman Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury, an artist – who declared their intention in 1870, before the uprising in 1871.

Following a French defeat by Prussia, they wanted to build a church in Paris dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as a sign of penitence, trust, hope and faith.

They thought the country’s problems were spiritual, rather than political.

The architect chosen for the job was the well-known Paul Abadie.

He died in 1884 and was succeeded by six other architects, but his original plans changed very little. The first stone was laid in 1875, but the building was not consecrated for another 40 years.

“It took years because it was built from donations, collected throughout France, often from parishes. There was no loan, so building could only go ahead when funds were available,” said Père Jacques.

“The first step, to build the foundations, was costly as deep pits had to be dug and then filled in to support the building, which would otherwise have sunk.”

Sacré-Coeur is able to continue to shine white over the city due to the choice of its exterior travertine stone. This is a type of limestone, known as Château-Landon from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarry in Seine-et-Marne. It is extremely hard, with a fine grain, and exudes calcite on contact with rainwater, making it forever white.

Its outer dome is 83 metres high. Inside is one of the largest mosaics in the world, measuring 475 square metres, representing the risen Christ. It was built between 1900 and 1922.

Abadie drew on several influences to come up with his design, which was the most important of his career. This eclectic approach is another factor which has delayed the acceptance of the building as a historical monument, said Père Jacques.

“It was not until the 1980s that the authorities began to recognise that 19thcentury architecture had virtues of its own. Until then, it was seen as derivative, drawing on a mixture of styles from the past.”

The government now has to decide which of the two classifications the basilica will come under, whether it will be inscrit, because it is of artistic or historic interest, or the highest level classé, because the conservation of the building is in the public interest in terms of art or history.

It will make a difference as inscrit historic monuments can receive state grants of up to an average of 20% for the cost of renovation work, but up to 40% if they are classé.

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