PARIS — The day after a preventable fire collapsed Notre Dame’s roof on April 15, Emmanuel Macron pledged to “rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully, and I want it to be finished within five years.” Four months into this deadline, the French president’s words appear naïve. It may take years to get the site ready for serious work.
Approach Notre Dame on foot from the front on a sunny August day, and the first feeling is relief: It doesn’t look that bad. Thanks to firefighters who risked their lives, the twin stone bell towers are intact, minus the spire behind them. The 28 kings of Judah still stare out placidly.
From the sides and back, though, the damage — and the early effort to halt further destruction — are clear. A tarp covers the space where the roof should be. Fabric protects windows both intact and damaged. Fresh wood shores up the famous flying buttresses.
Yet most jarring is the inactivity. At midday on a weekday, nobody is working. This isn’t a busy reconstruction site. Behind the tall metal fences that now secure the cathedral and its plaza and gardens, no one can be seen, save a lone security guard, playing on his phone.
This, even though the chief architect says the site isn’t yet stable. Key areas, including the vaulted ceiling, are still in danger of collapse.
This isn’t French lunch hour. On July 25, the Paris region’s prefect, the top national official in the city, abruptly halted all work at the site, saying that managers weren’t adequately enforcing rules to keep workers safe from debris. The stop-work order was to last a week. But two weeks later, the site is still on lockdown.
Better worker protections may not be enough. The fire transformed 400 tons of solid lead into dust — four times more lead, one environmental group points out, than France emits in a year.
As the tabloid Le Parisien informs readers daily, lead levels even months after the fire are regularly testing at multiples of the threshold, 70 micrograms per square meter, that generally requires cleanup.
As followers of New York City’s public-housing crisis know, lead poisoning is a particular danger to children, who spend a lot of time near ground surfaces and whose developing brains are susceptible to its irreversible harm.
Three school yards near the cathedral had rates north of 1,000 micrograms per square meter; the city shuttered two urban summer camps after high readings. Of 162 area children the city has tested, one had risky levels; another 16 were close to risky levels.
The city is spending the summer cleaning out schools and daycares with a special adhesive gel. Haz-mat specialists are even applying the gel to still-shuttered streets and sidewalks close to the cathedral.
France’s biggest labor union and several environmental groups say it isn’t enough: They charge that restoration work will stir up now-powdered lead within the cathedral, and recontaminate nearby sites. They want the state to seal all of Notre Dame in a dome, as is common at asbestos sites — a large-scale construction project in itself.
It isn’t insane to want to protect yourself and your children from lead poisoning, whose effects on cognition and fertility are incontrovertible. And France has hardly instilled confidence with its abrupt emergency closure of the construction site as well as the summer camp. (New York did no better with securing the health of its own workers after 9/11.)
In declaring the as-yet-unknown risk to be unacceptable, France has, for now, chosen people over reconstructing and even, possibly, saving the cathedral.
That’s laudable — but it also points out how little Macron grasped about the rebuilding process back in April, when his government was focused on a global competition for “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.”
Thankfully, France has backed away from the idea of reimagining Notre Dame. Just weeks before the site shutdown, the National Assembly passed a law requiring rebuilders to “preserve the historic, artistic and architectural interest of the monument.”
Indicating the project’s importance, Macron is likely to appoint a former top military official to oversee the effort.
A law is one thing, though; carrying it out is another. Building anything complex in a dense global city is hard enough. In this case, unbuilding some of what was already there will be even harder. If America’s experience with Ground Zero is any guide, finishing the reconstruction on time is a tall order under modern conditions. All the divine intervention on offer will be needed.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images