The steeple and spire of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15, 2019.
The steeple and spire of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15, 2019.

President Emmanuel Macron might have hoped he was striking a note for modernity and openness in announcing an international competition to design a new spire for Notre-Dame cathedral, but he may have opened a can of worms instead.

There was already debate about whether his goal of rebuilding the church by 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games, was overly ambitious, but now he's unsettled those who would prefer to return the national symbol to just how it was.

The steeple and spire of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15, 2019.
France Launches Global Contest to Replace Notre-Dame Spire
France on Wednesday announced it would invite architects from around the world to submit designs for replacing the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral after a devastating blaze, as the government braced for a mammoth restoration challenge.Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the contest would decide whether the monument should have a new spire at all and if so, whether it should be identical to the fallen 19th-century model or be a wholly new design.The world looked on in horror Monday as flames engulfed…

"Since the spire wasn't part of the original cathedral," the Elysee Palace said in a statement late on Wednesday, "the President of the Republic hopes there will be some reflection and a contemporary architectural gesture might be envisaged."

Computer-generated pictures online included ideas for a soaring glass needle to replace the 91-metre (300 foot) spire, which was added to the cathedral in the mid-1800s, replacing a Medieval one that was removed in 1786.

But that appears to be too much for many French, especially those with a traditional or Catholic bent.

In an online survey conducted by conservative newspaper Le Figaro, more than 70 percent of the 35,000 people who responded said they opposed any contemporary style design.

FILE - A picture take on April 11, 2019 shows the
FILE - A picture take on April 11, 2019 shows the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral during restauration works, in Paris.

Francois-Xavier Bellamy, a 33-year-old philosopher who will head the right-of-center Les Republicains party list in next month's European Parliament elections, said Macron's government lacked humility in suggesting a modernist rethink.

"We are the inheritors of patrimony, it doesn't belong to us, and it's important therefore that we hand it on in the way that we received it," he told Reuters.

"There are rules in France about protecting national heritage. The President of the Republic is not above the law.

It's not up to him to decide to build a modern spire."

Plus ca change...

While Bellamy is a conservative Catholic and might be expected to campaign for returning the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece to exactly how it was before the fire, his views are shared by some architectural historians.

Patrick Demouy, an emeritus professor of medieval history who specializes in the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, said it would be difficult to imagine something starkly different to the 19th century spire, even if its architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was himself quite inventive with his design.

"Personally, I'm in favor of restoring it to how it was because that's the spire that has imposed itself on the collective memory," he told Reuters. "It would be hard to perceive [a contemporary spire] because we wouldn't really recognize it any longer as being Notre-Dame."

French Culture Minister Franck Riester, French Pri
French Culture Minister Franck Riester, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and French Junior Minister and Government's spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye attend a news conference after the weekly cabinet meeting, dominated by the aftermath of the Notre-Dame c

Macron's culture minister, Franck Riester, said it was important the nation debated the issue and generated ideas.

There is likely to be months if not years of discussion before a design — contemporary or otherwise — is fixed upon.

"The masterpiece that Viollet-le-Duc left us is exceptional, but we must not dogmatically insist that we recreate an identical cathedral," he told BFM TV. "We must let the debate take place, see what ideas are presented, and then decide."

Paris has a track-record of being experimental with its architecture, whether via buildings such as the Pompidou Center, or the glass pyramid at the heart of the Louvre, which blends modernism with classical lines.

Other constructions, such as the 210-metre Montparnasse tower or the vast empty square of the Arche de la Defense, have come in for more criticism, even if they have fans, too.

The Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral is seen amid blossoming trees on April 3, 2019 in Paris.
Notre Dame: Center of Celebration, Mourning, Evolution of France
The cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (or Our Lady of Paris, dedicated to the Virgin Mary) has seen a long string of history-making events in its 850-year history. 1163: The cornerstone of the cathedral is laid on the site of an earlier church, and likely a Gallo-Roman temple before that. Bishop of Paris Maurice de Sully is the driving force of the new church.

For Jean-Michel Leniaud, an art historian at the National Institute of Art History, Notre-Dame is special because it is both a work of art and among the nation's greatest monuments, a source of unity for citizens in times of strife.

"The restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris shouldn't be the opportunity for creative architects to show off their inventive spark," he told Reuters. "We should go back to the original, the spire of Viollet-le-Duc," he said.

"The best way, the most consensual way to overcome this terrible disaster is to return it to the original state."