PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday hailed as "exemplary" hundreds of firefighters who saved Notre-Dame in the devastating blaze, as efforts intensified to ensure there was no further damage to the still fragile cathedral.
Some 600 firefighters worked throughout the night Monday to put out the fire at the Paris landmark and prevent an even worse disaster, in a blaze that felled the spire and destroyed two-thirds of its roof.
Sixty firefighters are still keeping a vigil at Notre-Dame to ensure no further fire erupts while France's culture minister warned that two gables and figurines perched high up in the building were still at risk of collapse inside.
Dressed in ceremonial uniform, the firefighters and other emergency workers filed into the Elysee Palace for the closed-door meeting with Macron.
"The country and the entire world were watching us and you were exemplary," Macron said. "You were the perfect example of what we should be," he added.
He said the firefighters would be awarded France's golden medal of honour in recognition of their "courage and devotion".
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo was also to pay tribute to the firefighters and others who helped save the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece, in a ceremony from 1430 GMT outside the city hall.
The ceremony will see a reading of Victor Hugo's celebrated novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (called simply Notre-Dame de Paris in the original French) about the deformed Quasimodo that helped turn the building into a cultural, as well as religious icon.
'Worst was avoided'
Culture Minister Franck Riester said on Thursday that even three days after the fire there remained concerns that parts of the building could collapse.
He said one gable in the north transept and another between the two great bell towers were at risk.
He also said figures in the southern bell tower still risked falling and, if they did, this would damage the organs below. An operation will be undertaken to remove them.
But he added that "thanks to the exceptional work of the fire brigade, their courage, the strategy for attacking the fire adopted by the two officers in charge, we can say that the worst was avoided".
Macron had on Tuesday in an address to the nation outlined an ambitious strategy to rebuild Notre Dame within just five years, hailing the French as a nation of "builders."
The goal was warmly applauded by some but greeted with skepticism by some experts who warned of the painstaking work and expertise needed to make the cathedral anew.
Investigators trying to determine the cause of the blaze are questioning workers who were renovating the steeple, an operation suspected of accidentally triggering the blaze.
For the toppled spire, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Wednesday that an international contest of architects would determine one of three options: not replacing the spire, rebuilding it as it was or creating a wholly new edifice.
A descendant of the 19th-century French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc who built the steeple on Thursday urged that it be rebuilt in some form.
"Not reconstructing the spire would equate to amputating an element that belongs to it," Jean-Marie Henriquet, 76, told AFP.
Catholic worshippers, particularly shocked by the burning of the cathedral just ahead of Easter, will be welcomed in an "ephemeral cathedral" of wood in front of the Paris monument until it reopens, Notre-Dame's chief priest Monsignor Patrick Chauvet told CNews.
Meanwhile, pledges of donations for rebuilding from France's biggest family companies, listed firms as well as foreign giants like Apple and Walt Disney have rolled in.
More than 850 million euros ($960 million) has now been pledged but there has been controversy over why the money has been so quick to come when France is beset by social problems.
"In one click, 200 million, 100 million. That shows the inequality which we regularly denounce in this country," the head of the CGT trade union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.
Riester however called the debate "pointless" and urged people to let this "extraordinary show of generosity to run is course."