Notre Dame Fire Highlights Plight of France’s Underfunded Patrimony

France’s government met Wednesday to draft a framework for donations to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. While more than $1 billion has been raised in response to last week’s massive blaze, many other historic monuments across France crumble for lack of funds to preserve them. 

The 12th-century Senanque Abbey — also called Notre Dame — in southern France is gradually decaying. Massive cracks in the abbey’s structure have forced the Cistercian monks living there to close part of it to visitors, and there are not sufficient funds available to fully restore it.

“We do not feel forgotten, but maybe a bit underestimated,” the abbey’s prior, Father Jean Marie, told French TV.

While Paris’ Notre Dame is grabbing the headlines, many other French monuments are also suffering. The Cistercian monastery has managed to raise several hundred thousand dollars for needed repairs, but it is still short about half-a-million.

Experts estimate about 2,000 historical monuments are at risk across France, including many cathedrals and village churches.

Public financing to preserve the country’s cultural heritage has shrunk steadily over the years.Today, France’s patrimony budget amounts to a tiny fraction of state spending. Local governments and the private sector are in charge of many historic monuments, but their budgets are limited.

President Emmanuel Macron’s patrimony adviser, Stephane Berne, told French radio that revitalizing rural communities starts with restoring local historic monuments that can deliver returns on the investment with jobs and tourism.

Berne is in charge of a new lottery program to raise money for preservation, but that totals just more than $20 million annually for all of France’s cultural heritage sites, compared to the billion-plus dollars raised for Notre Dame Cathedral.

“In each village, there is a Notre Dame that sometimes burns by the flame of indifference,” one group wrote in an editorial this week. 

However, private fundraising efforts are growing. A couple of years ago, for example, a crowdfunding campaign raised nearly $2 million to save a 13th-century chateau in western France. Like Notre Dame, it had been partially destroyed by fire.

And some people have suggested reallocating a portion of the Notre Dame donations — which may exceed what is needed to restore the cathedral — to save other cultural treasures.

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