Last week’s evening news shocked the world as a blazing fire was reported at the beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It goes without saying how important Notre Dame is, as both a religious and a historical monument, not only for Christians but for humanity as a whole. It is believed that the fire was an accident caused by conservation work being carried out at the time. According to one expert, such is the cause of 8-12% of heritage fires. After burning for eight hours, the cathedral’s main spire as well as a large portion of the roof collapsed.
However, as EU Council President Donald Tusk stated, ‘it’s not the end of the world’. As far as reconstruction projects go, French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to have the Cathedral rebuilt in only five years and a pool of both public and private donations has already raised about €1 billion for this massive undertaking, though not without criticism from other social causes. Those willing to donate to the reconstruction efforts can do so here. Until its completion, many treasures and artworks from inside the cathedral that have been safely recovered from the site are set to be transferred to the neighbouring Louvre.
Such a tragic event forces us to consider the legal protections in place for these situations. As is standard practice with most national collections and monuments, the Cathedral and its contents were not insured, neither by commercial insurance – which would have been exorbitantly expensive – nor by government indemnity schemes, as these usually apply only to artworks on loan, and likewise would be prohibitively expensive.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that there are no protections in place. At a national level, the State’s responsibility to care for its cultural heritage is enshrined in the French Code du Patrimoine. As far as buildings with a religious affectation are concerned, the Law of December 9th1905 is crucial in that it transferred ownership of – as well as the responsibility to care for – cathedrals built before that date, like Notre Dame, from the local parishes to the State. Interestingly enough, however, and in spite of its UNESCO World Heritage Site denomination, Notre Dame is not currently listed as a Trésor National, a national treasure, which would allow donations made in Notre Dame’s favour to benefit from a 90% tax break.
At the international level, the main convention promoting the protection of cultural heritage is the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, ratified by France in 1975. Article 4 imposes the obligation to ‘ensur[e] the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage’ adding that a State Party ‘will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and co-operation’. It could be difficult to argue that the current damage was a result of carelessness in upholding these duties, given that it was precisely during conservation works at the cathedral that the fire started. Further international protection is provided for through the 1985 Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe, which France ratified in 1987. Article 6 obliges States to ‘provide financial support […] for maintaining and restoring the architectural heritage on its territory’ and ‘to resort, if necessary, to fiscal measures’ or ‘to encourage private initiatives’.
In this regard, Notre Dame is certainly a lucky lady in the widespread and generous support that it has received through the financial pledges made within a matter of hours. Looking ahead, we hope that the five years’ reconstruction time will not prove too optimistic, as it originally took some 200 years to complete this great architectural marvel in the first place.