By Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron pledged on Tuesday that France would rebuild the fire-devastated Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, saying he hoped the work would be done in five years and the French people would pull together to repair their national symbol.
Macron devoted a brief prime-time televised address to Monday’s catastrophic blaze in the heart of the capital, again postponing planned remarks on his response to months of anti-government protests.
“We will rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years, we can do it,” Macron said.
“It is up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together, having deeply reflected on what we have been and what we have to be and become better than we are. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project.”
“This is not a time for politics,” added Macron, who had canceled a speech planned on Monday evening on the response to the “yellow vest” protests.
He visited the site of the fire late on Monday and promised then to rebuild the cathedral, parts of which date to the 12th century.
The cathedral spire was destroyed and its roof gutted but the bell towers were still standing and many valuable artworks were saved after more than 400 firemen worked to contain the blaze, finally quelling it 14 hours after it began.
As the city and the country grieved for a potent national symbol, billionaires, companies and local authorities were quick to offer donations.
Some 24 hours after the fire started, more than 750 million euros ($845 million) had been pledged, including 500 million from the three billionaire families that own France’s giant luxury goods empires: Kering, LVMH and L’Oreal.
Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation, officials said.
The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s oak roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire’s timber-framed supports. Police began questioning the workers involved, the prosecutor’s office said.
One firefighter was injured but no one else was hurt, with the fire starting at around 6:30 p.m. after the building was closed to the public for the evening.
Firefighters examined the facade, with its spectacular 10-metre filigreed stained-glass rose window still intact. They could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown.
Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound.
“Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the flames spread.
“CATHEDRAL OF THE PEOPLE”
Messages of condolence flooded in from around the world.
Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, was praying for those affected, the Vatican said, adding: “Notre-Dame will always remain – and we have seen this in these hours – a place where believers and non-believers can come together in the most dramatic moments of French history.”
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth expressed deep sadness while her son and heir Prince Charles said he was “utterly heartbroken”. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered German help to rebuild a part of “our common European heritage”.
Considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame is visited by more than 13 million people a year. It sits on an island in the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank hangouts of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.
“Notre-Dame de Paris is the cathedral of the people, of the people of Paris, of the French people, of the people of the world. It is part of those references of our history, of what we have in common, of what we share,” said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.
It was at Notre-Dame that Henry VI of England was crowned “King of France” in 1431, that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, and Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909. Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned there.
The cathedral is owned by the state and has been at the centre of a dispute between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.
It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine.
Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace of the fire’s spread had been stunning.
“We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile,” Violini said.
The company carrying out the renovation works when the blaze broke out said it would cooperate fully with the investigation.
“All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures,” Julien Le Bras, a representative of family firm Le Bras Freres.
Many relics and artworks were saved. At one point, firefighters, policemen and municipal workers formed a human chain to remove the treasures, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France.
Gold, silver and gem-inlaid chalices, candelabras and many other artefacts survived the blaze.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Inti Landauro, Richard Lough, Sarah White, Emmanuel Jarry, Luke Baker and John Irish in Paris; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough and Frances Kerry; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Peter Graff and Alison Williams)