Cathedral of Notre Dame

The French general’s advice to Notre Dame's chief architect: ‘Just shut up!’

A public spat between officials erupted this week in Paris over the reconstruction of the fire-ravaged cathedral and whether its historic spire should be restored as it was or a new spire built in its place

In October, French Culture Minister Franck Riester said the melted scaffolding atop Notre Dame Cathedral will be removed "in coming weeks" to allow restoration work to begin AP Photo/Michel Euler

A public dispute has arisen between the French officials in charge of the reconstruction of the fire-damaged Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. General Jean-Louis Georgelin, who is President Emmanuel Macron's special representative on the project, stunned MPs by insulting the chief architect in charge of the cathedral, telling him “to shut his big mouth” in front of the National Assembly’s cultural commission. The architect, Philippe Villeneuve, threatened to resign last month if the spire that was destroyed in April’s fire were not reconstructed in its original form. “I will restore it identically and it will be me, or they will build a modern spire and it won't be me,” Villeneuve said during a broadcast interview.

Questioned on Wednesday by MPs, Georgelin said, “the matter will be solved in a serene manner, and on time”. He added: “I have already explained to the chief architect that he should just shut his big mouth, and I will do it again.” Several MPs protested against Georgelin’s language and the Senate cultural commission judged him unfit to lead the agency expected to manage the €1bn reconstruction. France’s culture minister Frank Riester, who is known to be at odds with the brusque manners of the general, tweeted that Georgelin’s remarks “are not acceptable”. He later told the press that Elysée Palace asked Georgelin to “exercise better judgement and avoid any kind of public pronouncement in the media from now on”.

The controversy stems from President Macron’s attempts to circumvent the usual procedures protecting cultural heritage. He raised the possibility of a “modern architectural gesture” for the new spire and proposed an international competition for its design. Several experts pointed out that it would be impossible to separate the spire from the rest of the church. The chief architect quoted the 1964 Venice Charter, which says restoration must “preserve the aesthetic and historic value of the monument”. Notre Dame’s reconstruction was supposed to be discussed at the annual meeting of Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage Committee in June, but France failed to deliver its report on time and the hearing was held over until 2020.

President Macron appointed the general, a former head of the armed forces and a devout Christian who says he “reads and studies the Bible regularly”, to lead the project. The president then passed a law creating an agency responsible for the reconstruction programme. It pledges to “preserve the artistic and architectural history of the monument”, but falls short of stating that the 19th-century spire should be rebuilt as it was.

Georgelin also confirmed the five-year timetable set by Macron to complete the construction in time for the Paris Olympic Games—a deadline that has been criticised by over 1,000 heritage experts and architects. However, he admitted that the damaged cathedral building was still not fully secured. “It will be done when the scaffolding around the spire has been dismantled,” Georgelin said, and warned that winter winds could “destabilise” the temporary structure.