PARIS — The fire that engulfed the Notre Dame cathedral is a national catastrophe. It has traumatized millions in France, regardless if they are Catholic or not. Images of the flames that consumed the cathedral's 13th-century framework and the iconic spire that was a 19th-century addition have been circulating around the world.
Just as quickly, the event became fodder for all. Donald Trump could not resist giving stupid firefighting advice. Conspirators were shocked that a fire erupted less than two hours before a major speech by embattled President Emmanuel Macron. Lovers of heritage have rushed to the microphones to denounce the lack of public money. In the next few months, armies of bureaucrats will set themselves in motion to produce hundreds of pages of new rules, regulations, and laws aimed at avoiding that such a national tragedy ever happens again.
It is of course too early to know the original cause of this terrible fire. Some wonder if we'll find out it was ultimately a terrorist attack. Or the fire was triggered by a contractor wanting to avoid a penalty for being late in his renovation work, such as happened in the fire that had destroyed La Fenice opera house in Venice. Otherwise, it could have been some unfortunate combination of circumstances: a spotlight too close to a curtain, which caused the blaze at Windsor Castle in England, or the fireworks test that burned the Great Theatre of Geneva.
Perhaps the investigation will reveal that a contractor had overlooked security measures to fit a budget that was too small. But, by far, the most likely scenario is a mundane construction accident. It is probably not the absence of money or regulations that created the disaster, but rather a lack of vigilance. Not a problem of finances or law, but a problem of management.
We need to know how to manage of culture of risk.
Rehabilitating old houses, let alone historical monuments, are long operations that are delicate, complicated and perilous. A feat which requires blowtorches, electric currents mixed with dry wood and flammable chemicals, which triggers a lot of accidents. In Paris alone, the sites of the Lambert Hotel, the Ritz, and the headquarters of Radio France, the National Library, and the City of Science and Industry have suffered fires in recent years.
Maybe it will take more money and even more regulations. But first, we need to know how to manage the culture of risk, which is too often missing in France. The risks of financial investments are overestimated, and the risks of seemingly inconsequential negligence are underestimated. It is the same kind of risk that causes thousands of deaths on the road, sensational accidents like the Concorde supersonic jet and simple home accidents. Notre Dame is a cultural symbol. So too is its fire.
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