French heritage sites ‘at risk’ amid lack of funds

A leading expert has warned that the city of Paris and the French state must do more to protect French heritage, after the World Monuments Fund placed two historically-significant churches in the capital, which have fallen into disrepair, on an "at risk" list.

French heritage sites 'at risk' amid lack of funds
The damaged interior of the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris, one of two "at risk" French heritage sites in this year's World Monuments Fund "Watch List." Photo: WMF

The Church of Saint-Merri and the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris, two historically-significant heritage sites, have fallen into disrepair, one of them to the point of being dangerous to the public, due to insufficient investment by the Paris authorities, a leading expert on world monuments told The Local on Wednesday.

Commenting after the two churches were listed on its 2014 ‘at risk list’, the World Monuments Fund ‘s European president said Paris Town Hall, and the French government “must do more” to protect the country’s heritage.

“It’s not that French cities, who are responsible for churches, and the French state, which is responsible for cathedrals, are doing nothing towards the upkeep of these monuments,” said Bertrand Duvignaud.

“But there has been a long-running lack of serious investment in them, and these heritage sites have been neglected for a while now,” he added, noting that the churches listed in the World Monuments Fund were “just two of many worrying sites in France.”

The Eglise Saint-Merri, a Gothic 16th century church near Paris City Hall in the 4th arrondissement, has netting over its façade, to prevent injury to churchgoers and passersby from falling masonry, as well as damage to its interior.

The Eglise Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, a neoclassical 19th century church near Paris’s busy shopping street of Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement, has suffered damage to its interior over the years, with many decorative paintings falling into disrepair.

“Like many of these significant but lesser-known churches, they do not have adequate maintenance and conservation resources,” says the World Monuments Fund in its file on the French sites.

“Private organizations, parishes and local groups are trying their best to raise funds, but ultimately the responsibility lies with Paris Town Hall, since the churches are their property,” said Duvignaud.

As for the French government, according to Duvignaud it is still not doing enough to look after monuments such as Beauvais Cathedral, France’s tallest Gothic cathedral, which was on the World Monument Fund’s watch list in previous years.

Beauvais Cathedral. Photo:  Pepijntje/Wikimedia

The World Monuments Fund Watch List for 2014 details 67 heritage sites that are “at risk” in 41 countries throughout the world.

Four UK sites are in danger, according to the list, including Battersea power station in London and Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire.

In the US, the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis Missouri are among five monuments “at risk” in this year’s report.

A representative from the Paris Town Hall was not available for comment at time of writing. 

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French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

The storming of the Bastille has become the iconic moment that symbolises the French revolution - but how did the event actually play out?

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

Myth: The storming of the Bastille was done to free the hundreds of political prisoners held captive there

This myth is as old as the French revolution itself and the subject of numerous pieces of art.

The story goes that huge Parisian crowds came together at the Bastille prison on July 14th in 1789,  well armed and prepared to fight their way past the guards and military to free the hundreds of prisoners wrongfully convicted by the crown.

It’s true that the Bastille was stormed by a crowd, but at the time it was only housing seven prisoners, and none of them were known to have been rebelled against the crown in any notable way. According to records, the seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time were four counterfeiters, two ‘madmen’ and a nobleman accused of sexual perversion.

It is true that during previous centuries the giant prison was used to lock up those accused by the monarchy of sedition.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV imprisoned over 2,320 people in the Bastille prison over the course of his reign, many of whom were protestants. 

The prison had also been known for incarcerating seditious writers, and eventually it built up a very reputation amongst the French public in the 18th century. By the mid-1700s, the prison was less frequently used, and during the reign of Louis XVI, only 306 people were imprisoned in the building. 

However, the structure still represented a symbol of the monarchy in the middle of the capital city, and once it was stormed, it helped demonstrate to the King – and the rest of the world – the seriousness of the revolutionaries’ demands.

Another reason the storming of the Bastille was a key victory for revolutionaries was what was being stored there: gunpowder. The Parisians succeeded in seizing both gunpowder they needed for their weapons, as well as the cannons housed there.

Ultimately, storming the Bastille marked a symbolic victory and, by many historians’ accounts, a clear start to the Revolution – which is why France’s Fête nationale is celebrated on July 14th.

In the years following, several authors, such as Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, immortalised the Bastille prison as a place of torture for political dissidents and every day people alike. 

Now, the Place de la Bastille stands on most the former location of the famed prison. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.