Cathedral bells ring out across France after Notre-Dame catastrophe

Cathedral bells rang out across France on Wednesday evening, at the exact time a devastating blaze struck Paris's Notre-Dame on Monday, as it was announced architects would be invited to submit designs to replace the collapsed spire. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the international 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 the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece, seen as encapsulating the soul of Paris and the burning spire came crashing down. "Our beloved cathedral is on her knees" but she "will live again", she "will rise again", the Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit said Wednesday during a mass at the church of Saint-Sulpice attended by first lady Brigitte Macron. Investigators, meanwhile, were given their first access to the top of the cathedral to begin their probe into the cause of the blaze. - 'Huge challenge' - Philippe explained that having no new spire at all was an option, noting that Notre-Dame had been without a steeple before. "The international contest will settle the question of whether we should build a new spire, whether we should rebuild the spire that was designed and built by (Eugene) Viollet-Le-Duc, in identical fashion, or whether we should... endow Notre-Dame cathedral with a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era." Philippe described the task of rebuilding it as "a huge challenge and historic responsibility", a day after Macron said the entire restoration should be completed in just five years. The French president vowed to rebuild the iconic monument, the real star of Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" by 2024 when France hosts the summer Olympics. "We can do it," he said Tuesday, calling France "a nation of builders, fixing his ambitious timeline for restoring the landmark that took nearly two centuries to build and which has played a role in many of the defining moments of French history. The bells of Marseille's Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica were among those rung at 6:50 pm (1650 GMT) on Wednesday in support of Notre-Dame. Earlier the Conference of French Bishops said on Twitter that all cathedral bells nationwide would ring in "solidarity with the diocese of Paris". - Rebate debate - While firefighters were still tackling the blaze in the early hours of Tuesday, pledges of donations started coming in towards restoring France's best-loved monument, which attracted 12 million visitors in 2018, began to pour in. Within 24 hours, those pledges had reached more than 800 million euros ($900 million), with French business magnates and corporations jostling to outshine each other with displays of generosity. But the slew of announcements raised eyebrows in France, with some leftist politicians arguing that the ultra-rich could best help protect the country's cultural heritage by fully paying their taxes -- or helping the "human cathedral" of people in need. The huge tax breaks available on the donations also caused some unease, prompting Francois-Henri Pinault, the billionaire CEO of the Kering luxury goods empire, to announce he would forfeit his rebate. Pinault had led the pledges of donations with a promise of 100 million euros. Billionaire Bernard Arnault and his LVMH luxury conglomerate, Total oil company and cosmetics giant L'Oreal also each pledged 100 million euros or more, while US tech giant Apple said it would give an unspecified amount. Disney, which scored millions with the 1996 animated blockbuster "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" based on the Victor Hugo novel, said it would give $5 million. US President Donald Trump, who was ridiculed by the French fire services after urging the use of water bombers to put out the fire at the fragile edifice, also pitched in with an offer of help. Trump said he had spoken to Pope Francis and offered "the help of our great experts on renovation and construction" to rebuild Notre-Dame. - Rebuilding for 2024 Olympics - Macron is on Thursday due to meet the firefighters hailed as heroes for risking their lives to put out the fire. In a sign of the monument's resilience, meanwhile, the copper rooster that topped its spire was found Tuesday in the rubble of the roof, "battered but apparently restorable" according to a spokesperson for the culture ministry. The walls, bell towers and the most famous circular stained-glass windows also remain intact. But the floor of the nave was left strewn with blackened roof beams and chunks of the collapsed upper vaulting. Experts have warned that full restoration could take longer than five years, with one of the biggest tasks involving replacing the precious oak "forest" that propped up the roof. "I'd say decades," Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg cathedral, told AFP. Investigators on Wednesday spent a second day questioning workers who were renovating the spire, an operation suspected of accidentally triggering the blaze. Police have already spoken to around 30 people from five different construction companies. President Emmanuel Macron is on Thursday due to meet the firefighters hailed as heroes for risking their lives to put out the fire. burs-cb-sjw/har/pvh

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