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France united in grief over Notre Dame fire but divided in how to respond


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: This past April 15, the world watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral, the beloved Gothic symbol of Paris dating to the Middle Ages, was engulfed in flames and smoke.

Its world famous spire fell. Its roof collapsed. The cause was believed to be an accident. But, seven months later, a debate swirls over how to rebuild, and how quickly.

Jeffrey Brown has our report from Paris.

It's part of Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture coverage.

Jeffrey Brown: They are the fallen angels, once soaring high in the cathedral, now lying chipped, broken and contaminated in the Historical Monument Research Laboratory in a suburb of Paris, where director Aline Magnien sums up the daunting challenge of restoring Notre Dame.

Aline Magnien (through translator): It's really a building site like no other. It's quite an extraordinary project, which is very difficult, very tough and very demanding at the same time.

Jeffrey Brown: From some angles today, you can squint and imagine all is well at Notre Dame, but it is certainly not, and tourists and locals alike still mourn.

Bev Weiss: Just devastated for the world because of what a treasure it is.

Arline Mallimson: It's the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame when you think of Paris.

Aurelie Capdevielle: A monument burning is like the part of a piece of a story of humanity vanishing.

Jeffrey Brown: Visitors continue to come an act of witness and just out of curiosity. But now they're kept behind barriers, and the entire site has been shut off to visitors.

Inside, the cleanup work continues, and, all around, the realization has grown of just how hard it will be to repair and restore the great cathedral.

Jacky Bonnemains (through translator): The dust is mainly concentrated in seals like this or on the banks of the Seine, between cobbles or in inlays or in cracks like this.

Jeffrey Brown: An immediate and ongoing problem? Lead contamination. The fire melted hundreds of tons of lead in the roof, and the smoke carried and spread it throughout the surrounding area.

Jacky Bonnemains of the French environmental group Robin Hood says the government was slow to respond to a public health threat, even allowing visitors into the cathedral's plaza for the first months.

Jacky Bonnemains (through translator): From around April 20 until August 20, it was open. There were thousands of people, tourists, coming as families with children, who were lying on the ground to take photos and to eat.

Jeffrey Brown: Nearby schools like this one had to be decontaminated. The long-term health impact remains unclear. Also unclear, just how much of the lead found here, in a city as old as Paris, is due to the fire.

Government officials insist they are taking it seriously, but Bonnemains' group has filed a lawsuit demanding more accountability.

Jacky Bonnemains (through translator): What we really want -- and this might surprise you, is that other cities in France, as a lot of towns in Spain and in Italy, maybe even in the United States, that have beautiful monuments like Notre Dame, learn something from this fire and the way it was handled.

Jeffrey Brown: Lead contamination inside the cathedral has slowed the cleanup and forced workers to wear hazmat suits.

In July, authorities offered several media organizations a tour of the interior, but, not long after, issued a dramatic new warning, that the entire structure is still in danger of collapse, and stabilizing the walls is a priority, before turning to any restoration of the spire and roof.

At the lab outside Paris, Aline Magnien explained it this way:

Aline Magnien (through translator): There's a risk that Notre Dame's vault will become unstable, which would result in more stones falling and would put the public in danger.

So we have to establish to what extent the stones are damaged, and whether they still have some resistance, and then which stones we can keep and which ones need to be replaced.

Jeffrey Brown: Here, scientists study how stones drenched with water in the aftermath of the fire expand or contract as they dry.

Veronique Verges-Belmin: This is a vault element has been used to many, many little tests.

Jeffrey Brown: They're also conducting tests using lasers to clean the stones.

So the test is to see if the lead can be removed by this kind of method?

Veronique Verges-Belmin: Yes, on a small scale. And then they will go to the cathedral with the machine and make tests on the wall and on the sculptures of the cathedral.

Jeffrey Brown: All of this will eventually lead to the main event, actually rebuilding and restoring Notre Dame. And surrounding that are many more issues.

Though the cathedral dates to medieval times, the spire was actually a 19th-century design by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Among the questions now, whether to restore the wooden and lead roof, or use more modern materials, and whether to build an exact replica of the spire.

When authorities put out a public call for new designs just days after the fire, Instagram lit up, including with some wild ideas. But the prevailing attitude seems to be, rebuild it exactly as it was.

Art historian Philippe Plagnieux:

Philippe Plagnieux (through translator): I think our duty is to preserve the heritage we have inherited for future generations. And if we can't preserve it, then we should recreate it, reconstructing the cathedral, the roof, the spire, as it was before.

Jeffrey Brown: Another question, how soon can this be done? Immediately after the fire, French President Macron promised to rebuild within five years, a target many saw as timed to France's hosting of the 2024 Olympic Games.

This summer, France's Parliament created a new commission to oversee reconstruction, led by a former army chief. It's yet to formally meet, but we talked with one member, Monsignor Benoist de Sinety, who will represent the Catholic Church.

Benoist de Sinety (through translator): The most important thing is to remember that Notre Dame is first and foremost a cathedral, a church, a place of worship.

Jeffrey Brown: That may sound obvious, but debate had already swirled around Notre Dame for years, as it became an often overrun tourist site. The monsignor wants to use this moment to return to church values.

Benoist de Sinety (through translator): It is important to underline that when a bishop decided to build a cathedral in the Middle Ages, it was also a project to help the poorest in society. Today, when rebuilding Notre Dame, we are going to launch projects to help the most vulnerable in our society.

Jeffrey Brown: There are so many interests. There's political and economic, and cultural, of course, and the church. There could be a clash.

Benoist de Sinety: Never in France.

Jeffrey Brown: Never in France?


Jeffrey Brown: You mean always in France?


Benoist de Sinety: No.

Benoist de Sinety (through translator): Yes, of course, there will be difficulties. There will be questions, big debates. In France, we like having big debates, asking questions. We can go on and on.

We love to speak.

Jeffrey Brown: But will the rebuilding go on and on?

Like others, we spoke with, Monsignor de Sinety wonders when the last stone will finally be put in place, the cathedral completely restored and reopened. But he does hope to celebrate mass in Notre Dame within the next five years.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Paris.

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