“Laïcité” has been the law of the land in France since 1905, and it calls for the strict separation of church and state. Could it have been the case that the state let the church fall into disrepair because it would have broken the law by spending money to fix Notre Dame?
“What the 1905 law says — basically two things. A, freedom of religion, and B, state neutrality,” Quentin Lopinot, a French career diplomat and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post. “It broke from the 1801 legal regime, which was instituted by Napoleon [Bonaparte] and was trying to manage the nationalization of churches after the revolution.
“The 1905 law does not prevent state authorities or public authorities from maintaining — it’s actually quite the opposite,” Lopinot said. “The 1905 law preserves the principle that those buildings are not private buildings but that they are state-owned buildings. That comes directly from the revolution.”
Or, as Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador the United States, tweeted in response to the notion that the separation of church and state had prevented the latter from funding Notre Dame’s restoration, “The cathedral belongs to the state which is responsible of its maintenance.”
That being said, day-to-day maintenance of churches and cathedrals in France often falls to cultural and religious associations. And just because the state is responsible for funding large infrastructure projects does not necessarily mean it has the money to do it.
“We know that, the public finance situation being quite challenging, there are a few historical buildings, monuments that probably have not been maintained as they used to be maintained when our public finance was better,” Lopinot said. According to a Ministry of Culture survey from the 1980s, there are about 32,000 churches, 6,000 chapels and 87 cathedrals in France. All those built before 1905 are publicly owned.
“Apart from that, it’s a huge building that requires incredible expertise to maintain because it is so old [and] because the competencies you would need for a person to work on these kinds of buildings are very rare,” Lopinot said.
There’s also the question of how enthusiastic the public is for the government to spend massive amounts of money on a cathedral.
“The real check would be public opinion — in principle, in such cases, the sum of money spent on repairs depends to a large extent on the government’s own willingness to act,” Arthur Ghins, a doctoral candidate focused on French liberalism and the Enlightenment at the University of Cambridge, wrote in an email. “And the government’s own willingness to provide funds will inevitably depend on public opinion, i.e. public pressure/public desire for repairs.”
“The pressure is clearly maximal at the moment: global emotion for Notre Dame, triggering a quick course of action,” Ghins wrote.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions surrounding laïcité that bring it to the front of people’s minds when religious buildings and symbols in France are under discussion.
The laïcité law, per Lopinot, was controversial until World War II, but secularism as a concept is generally accepted and popular within France today. The question is whether the 1905 law is the best possible means through which to achieve the goal of church-state separation. For instance, bans on veils and headscarves that have been instituted in recent years are seen by some as a natural extension and protection of the laïcité creed, but others view the measures as discriminatory and harmful to Muslim women’s participation in the public sphere.
Even so, the 1905 law is unlikely to undergo its own reconstruction.
“The 1905 law is something of a sacred — if I can say so — law in France,” Lopinot said.