PARIS • France will open the redesign of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral's historic spire to international architects after Monday night's catastrophic blaze that gutted the oak-framed roof and sent the towering spire crashing through the vaulted ceiling.
The government's announcement yesterday added to a question many are asking as France grieves for its damaged national symbol: whether the familiar outline at the heart of the capital should be restored exactly as it was or given a modern twist.
French President Emmanuel Macron pledged in a prime-time address to the nation on Tuesday that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt within five years. Tycoons and international firms have promised financial and expert help.
The cathedral was built over nearly 200 years, starting in the middle of the 12th century, although it was only in the mid-1800s that architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc added the lead-covered spire during restoration work.
"The international competition will allow us to ask the question of whether we should even recreate the spire as it was conceived by Viollet-le-Duc," French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.
"Or whether, as is often the case during the evolution of heritage, we should endow Notre-Dame with a new spire that reflects the techniques and challenges of our era."
Monday's inferno devastated a world treasure, prompting an outpouring of collective sorrow and soul-searching in France over whether to recreate the destroyed rooftop and spire or adapt the cathedral to the 21st century.
As Mr Philippe spoke, firefighters were using a crane to hoist supports to stabilise a fire-ravaged pinnacle that houses one of Notre-Dame's 13th-century stained-glass rose windows.
There was no immediate danger that the centuries-old structure would collapse, but statues were being removed to reduce the risk of movement, the fire service's spokesman said.
"Today, there is no risk of collapse. Our priority is to stabilise the pinnacles which are weakened, since they are no longer held up by the roof and its frame," Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Plus said.
There were also concerns for the towering mountain of scaffolding that had been erected prior to the blaze for repair work to the 90m spire, and that was subjected to an intense heat, Lt-Col Plus said.
It was not yet known what caused the blaze.
The city's public prosecutor, Mr Remy Heitz, said on Tuesday there was no sign of arson and it was likely to have been the result of an accident. Some 50 people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation, he added.
Passers-by laid flowers on bridges crossing the Seine River as Parisians gave thanks to see the bell towers standing valiantly after the fire.
Concerns over the cathedral's structural soundness have prevented investigators from entering Notre-Dame's main nave to assess damage at ground level.
Experts say, thanks to a small yet enduring corps of artisans specialised in traditional stone and woodwork techniques, France's goal of restoring the cathedral within five years may be within reach.
But officials in the sector noted that they will probably need to hire hundreds of new apprentices to carry on the intricate and often arduous work, much of which cannot be replicated by modern technology.
As the scale of damage was revealed, billionaires and corporate giants lined up to pledge huge donations.
Their largesse raised questions among some French people over whether they had hidden motives, such as seeking tax breaks.
Mr Philippe said his government would draft new legislation to introduce a 75 per cent tax deduction on private donations of up to €1,000 (S$1,530). The deductible will remain at 66 per cent for bigger sums.
The cathedral has been at the centre of a long-running financing row and pleas from the Church for more cash.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Human chain helped save treasures
PARIS • Risking their lives as they toiled through the night, firefighters and others formed a human chain to rescue a swathe of Notre-Dame's priceless treasures.
Some 400 firefighters tackled the huge blaze at the 12th-century Gothic masterpiece and, oblivious to the danger they faced, saw their efforts rewarded as they saved the main structure.
They also brought out many relics by going inside even as the inferno spread quickly on the medieval roof beams - not least the Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis IX.
Their lack of self-regard as they retrieved other items prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to praise their courage.
"We started to panic when we smelt scorching", even before the flames emerged, said vicar-general of Notre-Dame Philippe Marsset, who watched aghast as the drama unfolded.
Within an hour, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said: "General Jean-Claude Gallet (the commander of the Paris fire brigade) is explaining to us that it will be very difficult to save the (wooden) roofing but that the priority will be to save the relics."
The firefighters then moved in, seeking out as many of the building's treasures as they could, forming a human chain to bring them to safety. Fire brigade Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Plus said "everything was against" the first firefighters on the scene.
"Time and the wind were against us and we had to get on top of it fast. We had to make a rapid choice... and the priority we gave ourselves was to save the two bell towers, and both were saved," he added. "From the beginning, there was always the possibility that the whole structure might collapse."
While critics have suggested more could have been done to slow the fire, tough choices had to be made, said Lt-Col Plus, adding that they could not have hoped to save the roof by that stage.
"Heritage curators had a prevention plan which indicated what was most important in each room of the building," said sources close to Mayor Hidalgo, who afterwards heaped praise on all involved.
"A tremendous human chain formed comprising firefighters, police and municipal workers", which stretched for some 200m and managed "to save dozens and dozens of artefacts" by passing them along the chain and out to safety, Ms Hidalgo noted.
Said Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, Notre-Dame's chief cleric: "They put their lives at risk to protect this priceless treasure."
For Mr Christophe Girard, who oversees cultural affairs at the city hall, "it was as if we were transporting a heart destined for a transplant".
Three lorries headed off with many of the rescued items, initially to the nearby town hall, while Interior Secretary of State Laurent Nunez reflected that "a quarter of an hour, half an hour" more would have been too late.
The treasures would be on the move once again, this time to the Louvre museum, for safekeeping.