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French President bids to save France's rural churches under new financial scheme

by Ros Mayfield

Thousands of rural churches in France could be saved from falling into ruin, thanks to a new fund launched by President Emmanuel Macron.

The money, which will be raised by public donations, will go towards the renovation of religious buildings in areas of France where the population numbers less than 10,000.  Donors will be offered a tax incentive of up to 75 per cent.  It’s thought the final amount could total as much as 200 million Euros.

When the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in the centre of Paris caught fire in 2019, Mr Macron pledged to restore it completely within 5 years.  He launched an international fundraising campaign which attracted hundreds of millions of Euros.   In a televised address, as the charred timbers were still being cooled by firefighters, he told the French people: “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche… the epicentre of our lives.  So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.”

The president, who was baptised into the Catholic church as a teenager, has made supporting France’s religious heritage one of his cultural policies. But there’s growing concern that too little money is available for the country's rural churches.

According to reports, as many as five thousand are in danger of falling into disrepair.  The include the Gothic building in Semur-en-Auxois - the place chosen by Macron to make his announcement, accompanied by his wife Brigitte.  A small, picturesque town in Burgundy, it is home to pretty cottages and archetypal historic French buildings.  The twin-towered Gothic-style church, similar in shape to Notre Dame but much smaller, stands proudly in the middle of the hillside easily visible from every direction.  Its silhouette has formed part of the landscape there for decades, but the 4,200 inhabitants are struggling to afford its upkeep.

France has been a secular state since 1905, and the government can only subsidise work on religious buildings if they have been awarded national heritage status.  The designation has been granted to just over one-fifth of the country’s roughly 50,000 churches so far.  Macron says he wants more churches to be given status, making them eligible to receive government money, but until then local councils must foot the bill.

The president acknowledged that in some cases, local desire to save the buildings may be motivated by cultural ties, rather than a flourishing Christian faith: “Councillors and residents… have an attachment to this heritage whether or not they believe [in God],” he said.  Macron’s popularity has been bruised in recent months, by public anger at his pension reforms, and this scheme may be one way for him to restore his reputation with traditionalists.

Macron’s former heritage adviser, Stéphane Bern, is a presenter of popular history documentaries and joined the President and his wife for the announcement.  He was quoted in the Times newspaper saying: “This issue touches upon the national identity. People say, ‘You are building mosques but you are destroying churches’.” 

A scheme announced by Macron at the start of the summer would also see the creation of a nation-wide inventory of religious buildings - as recommended in a Senate report last year.  The lack of such documentation has made it hard for the government to identify and track those buildings most in need of repair and facing financial difficulty.

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