French artisans gear up to restore Notre-Dame

Julien DURY and Joseph Schmid
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Charred debris in front of the altar at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in the aftermath of a devastating blaze which destroyed the monument's roof

Charred debris in front of the altar at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in the aftermath of a devastating blaze which destroyed the monument's roof (AFP Photo/LUDOVIC MARIN)

Paris (AFP) - Thanks to a small yet enduring corps of artisans specialised in traditional stone and woodwork techniques, France's ambitious goal of restoring the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral within five years may be within reach, experts say.

But officials in the sector add they will probably need to hire hundreds of new apprentices to carry on the intricate and often arduous work, much of which can't be replicated by modern technology.

"It's a niche market. There aren't that many projects but there aren't that many of us either," said Benoit Dulion, who heads a firm in the central Yonne department that restores timber roof frames.

For decades the French state has spent heavily on the exacting upkeep of its cultural treasures, ensuring the preservation of artistic and architectural know-how dating back to the Middle Ages.

Maintaining the country's 40,000 registered monuments is effectively a full-time job, with schools passing on time-honed techniques to successive generations.

But before a hammer or chisel gets anywhere near a registered monument like Notre-Dame, France's culture ministry dispatches an architect with demonstrated expertise in antique and often fragile artwork.

Only 40 of the nearly 30,000 architects in France have currently passed the ministry's muster for such work.

- 'Lack of young people' -

Once the architect has signed off on a project, the government seeks bids from companies accustomed to the painstaking work.

A few are subsidiaries of France's major construction firms like Vinci, whose SOCRA unit is restoring 16 copper statues lifted off the roof of Notre-Dame just days before Monday's fire.

Most however are small firms, including the roughly 200 in the GMH association of monument restoration companies.

"A lot of them are family affairs," said Dulion, who is also the GMH representative in Burgundy.

His firm of 18 workers was founded in the late 1940s by his grandfather "who did a bit of everything with wood," before his son began focusing on historical monuments in the 1980s.

"The industry framework exists through the GMH," said Gael Hamon, founder of Art Graphique & Patrimoine.

His company has made ultra-precise digital 3-D models of some 30 cathedrals. Notre-Dame is not among them -- but fortunately modelling of the Paris cathedral was done by a Vassar College in the US, led by a francophile American art professor Andrew Tallon who died in November.

"Between us and the different artisans like woodworkers, roofers stonemasons and architects, we can restore what's necessary," Hamon said.

But to meet the five-year goal set by President Emmanuel Macron, firms may have to move fast to find enough hands for all the work.

"As soon as September we'll have to recruit 100 masons, 150 woodworkers and 200 roofers," said Jean-Claude Bellanger, secretary general of France's storied Compagnons du Devoir artisan mentoring network.

His guild, which dates back to the Middle Ages, usually takes on a total of 2,000 apprentices each year.

"The problem is that these manual crafts are undervalued and don't attract many people," he said.

"We have the firms and the expertise, but there's a serious lack of young people for this work."

- 'Never get rich' -

GMH officials said this week that despite the handful of high-profile projects like Notre-Dame, most artisans make only a modest living off restoration work.

The French monuments market represents around 600 million euros ($680 million) of revenue a year, a small fraction of the country's 135-billion-euro construction industry.

"I'm not going to whine, but as a colleague told me, 'We're never going to get rich with historical monuments'," Dulion said. "And that's true."

Many learned their craft out of a love for art and time-honoured techniques, and the prestige that comes from helping to preserve a cultural treasure.

"We need these jobs to have the recognition of excellence they had in the 13th century, when they built the cathedral," Bellanger said.

He fears that if France mobilises all its resources for Notre-Dame, "it will come at the expense of other projects".

And rushing to meet the five-year goal for finishing the work carries its own risks.

"It's going to take time," said Hamon, of the digital modelling firm.

"With a restoration, it needs to last for at least 50 to 100 years. You can't rush things."