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Tempers flare over rebuilding of Notre-Dame spire

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Paris (AFP) - The French army general charged with overseeing the rebuilding of Paris' fire-mangled Notre-Dame, has caused astonishment by publicly telling the cathedral's chief architect to "shut his mouth" in a sign of tension over the monument's future look.

General Jean-Louis Georgelin and chief architect Philippe Villeneuve are at odds over whether to replace the cathedral's spire -- which was toppled in the April 15 blaze -- with an exact replica, or mix things up with a modern twist.

President Emmanuel Macron, who appointed Georgelin to head the massive reconstruction project, has said he is in favour of adding a "contemporary" touch.

But Villeneuve insists the tower must be redone exactly as it was before.

Tensions boiled over into an open squabble at a meeting of the cultural affairs committee of the National Assembly -- the lower house of parliament-- late Wednesday.

"As for the chief architect, I have already explained that he should shut his mouth," Georgelin erupted, to gasps of astonishment from those present at the meeting.

The former army chief of staff suggested that "we move ahead in wisdom so that we can serenely make the best choice for Notre-Dame, for Paris, for the world".

He said the final option will be decided in 2021, and called in the meantime for the "hustle and bustle" over the issue to stop.

Georgelin confirmed the five-year timeframe set by Macron for rebuilding the religious edifice -- a deadline some experts see as too ambitious.

- 'Still in danger' -

Villeneuve, however, has previously said the target could only be met if the spire is rebuilt to resemble its former self.

The Notre-Dame, part of a UNESCO world heritage site covering the banks of the River Seine in Paris, lost its gothic spire, roof and many precious artefacts in the April 15 blaze.

Paris prosecutors said in June a poorly stubbed-out cigarette or an electrical fault could have started the fire and opened an investigation into criminal negligence.

Last month, the culture ministry said nearly one billion euros ($1.1 billion) had been pledged or raised for the gargantuan reconstruction.

The cathedral remains enveloped in scaffolding and plastic sheeting.

Georgelin told MPs the Notre-Dame "remains in danger".

"The phase of securing the edifice is not over. It will be done when the scaffolding around the spire has been dismantled," he said, and warned of winter gales threatening to "destabilise" the temporary, protective structure.

On the positive side, the Notre-Dame "no longer seems to be emitting lead" offsite -- a major concern shortly after the disaster that saw hundreds of tonnes of lead in the roof and steeple melt.

Villeneuve, the cathedral's architect since 2013, told the RTL broadcaster last month: "Either I restore it identically, it will be me, or they make a contemporary spire and it will be someone else."

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