An image made available by Gigarama.ru on April 17, 2019 shows an aerial shot of the fire damage to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France.
An image made available by Gigarama.ru on April 17, 2019 shows an aerial shot of the fire damage to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France.

PARIS - Bells tolled across France Wednesday, marking the moment flames began demolishing parts of Notre Dame Cathedral. The focus is now on rebuilding the Paris cathedral — and finding the cause of the inferno that ravaged one of the world’s most iconic landmarks. The unity forged by the fire may be short-lived.

From village churches to Saint Sulpice in Paris, the sound was of bells. Notre Dame is badly damaged by Monday’s fire but still standing. Some of its biggest treasures have been saved: the bell towers and rose windows, along with priceless artifacts - like a crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus.

People attend the Chrism Mass, as part of the Holy
People attend the Chrism Mass, as part of the Holy Week, at the Saint Sulpice Church in Paris, France, April 17, 2019.

Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced a global competition to design the replacement for Notre Dame’s spire that collapsed in the inferno. The cathedral had fire alarms but reportedly lacked some basic safety measures.

President Emmanuel Macron wants to repair Notre Dame in five years, when Paris hosts the Olympics. Some experts estimate it will take much longer. But reconstruction money is pouring in — nearly a billion dollars in donations so far.

French President Emmanuel Macron sits at his desk
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses the nation at Elysee Palace in Paris following a massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, April 16 2019.

?In an address to the nation, Macron said the fire offered an occasion to come together. “We can be better than we are,” he said.

But it’s unclear whether Notre Dame — or Macron— can unify a deeply divided France that has seen months of yellow vest protests over government policies.

This photo provided on April 17, 2019 by the Paris
This photo provided on April 17, 2019 by the Paris City Hall shows artifacts rescued from the Notre Dame blaze in Paris, France.

Nicolas Chouin, who joined the crowds of people flocking to see the charred cathedral, said he hopes healing will occur.

“It’s something beyond us - beyond our little problems of everyday life. So it can be a rewarding event in a way. Of course it doesn’t solve all the political issues…we’ll see if it’s just a parenthesis.”

Debris are seen inside Notre Dame cathedral in Par
Debris are seen inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, April 16, 2019.

The fire caused France’s squabbling parties to suspend campaigning for European Union elections, but most observers think the truce will be short-lived. The French are also waiting for Macron to announce planned measures to meet popular grievances — also delayed by the inferno.

Investigators are interviewing construction workers who might have inadvertently started the blaze. So far, the cause is still considered likely to be accidental.