France will win Notre-Dame rebuild challenge, says general in charge

Seven tonne oak trusses recently arrived in Paris by barge. We spoke to the project chief, a military man hand-picked by President Macron

Notre-Dame in Paris is due to reopen to the public in December 2024
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On April 15, 2019, people in France and around the world held their breath as Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris went up in flames.

More than four years later in July, new oak trusses arrived in the capital by barge on the Seine.

Fifteen metres wide, 10 metres tall and weighing seven tonnes, they were lifted away by crane, and will form an essential part of the new roof surrounding the restored spire.

The original framework dated back to the 13th century and was known as la forêt (the forest) because of its vast number of beams.

A military man to deliver Macron’s five year deadline

Former army general Jean-Louis Georgelin was the man chosen to oversee the cathedral’s mammoth restoration project, coordinating the worlds of religion, politics and culture, just two days after the night of the fire.

A former chief of staff to President Chirac, General Georgelin was also chief of France's defence staff from 2006 to 2010. Did this mission require a military man?

“You will have to ask the president,” General Georgelin told The Connexion, with a smile.

He said Emmanuel Macron had three conditions for the position.

“It had to be a Catholic; it had to be someone who had worked at the highest levels of the state; and someone who knows how to show authority.”

Photo: Former army general Jean-Louis Georgelin was chosen to oversee the cathedral’s mammoth restoration project; Credit: Abaca Press Alamy

President Macron set an ambitious deadline of five years for the rebuilding, a target the restoration team is proudly on track to meet.

€846million rebuild cost covered by donations

General Georgelin admits the team has had to surmount multiple challenges, presented by French legislation and its many codes governing national monuments, as well as employment and public contracts – and all while balancing the interests of the different bodies involved.

“My office at the Elysée Palace has been an important tool to demonstrate the president’s support,” he said, referencing the audacious timeline.

One help was that the project was fully financed in advance with a number of major French fortunes committing €500million within days of the blaze.

The necessary €846million was soon covered, thanks to 340,000 donors from 150 countries.

It is a huge task.

Read more: €50million Notre-Dame Cathedral landscaping project approved in Paris

Lead poisoning concerns mean strict safety procedures

General Georgelin says he has been able to count on around 40 people who work for the public organisation created to oversee the rebuild, and a total of 1,000 workers throughout France, half of whom are on site – although conditions have complicated the work due to the presence of lead.

The requirements for watertight clothing and systematic showers when leaving the site, even for visitors, have been particularly stringent.

He confided that King Charles III had wanted to visit the site, but it did not make the programme due to these safety complications. This was before the King’s visit to France was cancelled due to protests.

‘A few tears’ as keystones installed

Construction on Notre-Dame began in 1163, and the cathedral has played an important role in French history and identity ever since.

General Georgelin laughed as he pointed out that only one king of France was crowned there, in 1431 – the highly disputed Englishman Henry VI, at the height of the Hundred Years’ War.

The kings of France were traditionally crowned at Reims Cathedral.

In the Middle Ages, as with many French cathedrals, elements of the façade were painted in different colours, but General Georgelin says there are no plans to return it to its former look.

Inside, however, many of the frescoes and decorations have been restored to their original colours, as have the stained-glass windows.

He recalls certain crucial stages in the reconstruction, particularly the installation of the keystones, which aroused strong emotions, and “a few tears”.

He also shared that he regrets not having been able to meet Ken Follett because of Covid.

The Welsh author wrote a book on Notre-Dame in 2019, and his royalties paid to the Fondation du Patrimoine for the Paris cathedral were redirected, with his approval, to the restoration of Saint-Samson in Dol-de-Bretagne, founded by a Welshman like himself.

Read more: Ken Follett visits Brittany cathedral he is helping to restore

Due to reopen to the public in December 2024

The final stages are now under way for the roof and the spire, which has been rebuilt to the same 96m height as the one designed by Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc in the 19th century, whose collapse shocked the world.

The base of the spire has already been installed, with the upper part due to be added in autumn, meaning the cathedral’s famous silhouette should once again be visible by the end of this year.

“Everyone remembers what they were doing when the cathedral burned down.

“Believers of all religions, lay people, the whole world was moved by emotion,” said General Georgelin.

The cathedral is due to reopen to the public in December 2024.

“It is a challenge that France will win, and it is to France’s credit that it has taken it up and succeeded,” he said.

Visitors to Paris can learn more about the reconstruction project by visiting the ‘Notre-Dame de Paris. From builders to restorers’ exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.

You can also follow the rebuilding work online.

General Georgelin spoke to The Connexion ahead of a conference organised by the Monaco Méditerranée Foundation in Monaco in June.

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