Almost three years ago, on the night of 15 April 2019, at the very beginning of Holy Week, the whole world discovered with horror and amazement that fire had engulfed Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. After several days of relentless struggle against the flames, the firefighters finally managed to bring the blaze under control and save a few parts of the building—which narrowly escaped total and final destruction.
The emotion was immense and soon it became clear that Notre Dame had to be rebuilt—identically—to make people forget the tragedy and perpetuate the heritage received from past centuries. Donations poured in from France and all over the world to save what could be saved.
It should have been simple.
But very quickly, controversies multiplied on the modalities of the reconstruction, and on the possible transformations, adaptations, and updates that the poor burnt cathedral might undergo. We reported on this in these columns a few weeks ago.
Today, the cathedral is prey to a new kind of threat, from the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, who should be among the first to protect the building and hasten its reconstruction, if for no other reason than because Notre-Dame is one of the major centres of tourism in the French capital.
According to Le Parisien, the city hall would demand a tax for the installation of the building site, more precisely the occupation of the cathedral’s surroundings. For this occupation, the fee would amount to €3.4 million per year, or a total of €25.4 million for the entire duration of the work.
The president of the parliamentary information mission on the restoration of Notre-Dame of Paris, MP Brigitte Kuster, considered Anne Hidalgo’s request “inadmissible.” Indeed, such a tax usually exists for classic building sites. However, this is of course a very special situation, and tax exemptions have been granted in the past: after the fire in Nantes Cathedral in 2020, for example, the city waived its taxes.
But an even more pressing case against the exorbitant tax can be made on the basis of funding. The public establishment in charge of the restoration work only operates on donations, and it seems difficult to imagine that donations could be used to pay a tax to the city of Paris. The person in charge of the site, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, sent a request to the Paris City Council for an exemption from this tax, which has so far remained unanswered. On two occasions, Mayor Anne Hidalgo had received an invitation to visit the construction site, which she ignored.
Hidalgo’s intervention in the restoration project raised even more questions when her pledge, from April 2019, to contribute €50 million to the restoration work, was rescinded. Instead, she decided to allocate the money not to the restoration of the building, but to the reorganisation of the cathedral’s surroundings, to be the subject of a “major international competition” of which one can reasonably expect the worst. Her decision to redirect the money is the subject of much criticism, and in response many municipalities, French and foreign, have chosen to pay sums, both significant and symbolic, to help with the reconstruction.
For the time being, the Socialist mayor of Paris, who is also a presidential candidate, prefers to remain silent. The French institution in charge of public financial control, the Cour des Comptes, could look into the matter to determine whether there is a link between the intention of the donors and the use of their money—in this case, to pay a tax to the city of Paris.
The affair is taking on a dimension that goes far beyond the capital. Finances are a sensitive issue for Anne Hidalgo, who has literally exploded the debt of the city of Paris to the point of exceeding €7 billion. Her move to tax the Notre-Dame construction site has all the appearances of a predictable, if not shameful, strategy to make up for her fiscal shortcomings. In the middle of an election campaign, when Anne Hidalgo is asserting her desire to lead France, the restoration of Notre-Dame is an international issue that she is treating with contempt.