PARIS – On the night of April 15, 2019, the world watched Notre-Dame burn.
Confused tourists aimed their smartphones when smoke rose from the cathedral roof. Horrified Parisians watched from the banks of the River Seine as flames crossed the century-old attic, sending the tower to the vaults below. President Emmanuel Macron, broadcast to television sets worldwide, has promised to rebuild by 2024, when Paris will host the Summer Olympics.
But a year later, all the tourists are gone and the streets are empty. Parisians are confined to their homes, while Macron tries to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from reaching hospitals in France and sinking its economy.
The world's attention is elsewhere.
"Our days, our thoughts, our lives today are monopolized by this terrible crisis that we are going through," said Macron, referring to the Covid-19 outbreak in a brief video published on social media, thanking "those who yesterday saved" Notre-Dame Cathedral and "those who are rebuilding today".
All taxes originally planned for Wednesday to mark the anniversary have been dropped. They included a reception at the Elysee Palace to honor the workers who looked after Notre-Dame; an official ceremony with the cathedral choir; and a performance of a musical about Notre-Dame in front of the city hall.
The construction site itself was closed last month when France was closed, just as workers were beginning to gently remove thousands of scaffold tubes, twisted and charred by fire, that are still on top of the cathedral.
But General Jean-Louis Georgelin, a former army chief of staff appointed by Macron to head the Notre-Dame renewal task force, said that despite the pandemic, the "emotional intensity" of the fire "has not diminished".
"Interest in this construction project has not diminished," he said.
The cathedral, where 13 million visitors used to fill every year, is still closed to the public, and there have only been two religious ceremonies inside since the fire, including one last week for Friday.
"France now faces two huge challenges," said General Georgelin, "rebuilding the cathedral, which in some ways is the soul of France" and facing "a huge health, economic and social crisis".
Still, the virus and its death toll – more than 17,000 people have died in France so far – overshadowed the celebrations for a fire that killed no one and left most of the cathedral still standing.
Mons. Benoist de Sinety, vicar general of the archdiocese of Paris, said Le Figaro last week, after the fire, "we have no hesitation in talking about a catastrophe or a tragedy".
"What do those words weigh today?" said Mgr. de Sinety, who represents the archdiocese on the board of the Notre-Dame task force. "It would be a mistake to show a monument and a construction project, however important, when the emergency is now human and social."
No one denies the differences between the two events. But some see similarities.
"The question we could ask the good Lord is: Why?" said Mgr. Patrick Chauvet, rector of Notre-Dame. "This is the question I was asking when I was in the square a year ago, this is the question that I ask again today."
He added: "This first anniversary, at the height of the pandemic, may also indicate to the world that this injured 850-year-old lady is close to everyone who is injured."
To take that message home, a tribute took place on Wednesday. Notre-Dame's largest bell – dated 1683 and made of 13 tons of bronze – rang at 8 pm. "joining" the thousands of people across France who applaud and clap their windows every night to support healthcare professionals, said General Georgelin.
A 200-foot crane still rises above the cathedral, an impending reminder of the work ahead of a series of setbacks.
Workers rushed to land the building after the fire, which investigators still believe to be accidental, perhaps caused by discarded cigarettes or an electrical short. The safe is drilled through three holes, and the flying buttresses are supported by huge wooden blocks. About a hundred sensors monitor all the movements of Notre-Dame.
But construction was halted for weeks last summer due to concerns about lead contamination from the damaged roof and tower. Work resumed at a much slower pace, with strict decontamination protocols for the approximately 80 workers, who must wear protective equipment and bathe each entry and exit.
So, the bad autumn and winter weather – especially strong winds – further delayed the schedule.
Macron said on Wednesday that the restoration of Notre-Dame was "a symbol of our people's resilience, their ability to overcome difficulties" and that "we will do everything" to maintain the 2024 target.
Critics say this is increasingly unrealistic.
"I don't believe it for a minute," said Emmanuel Grégoire, deputy mayor of Paris, about the deadline, saying Le Monde this week that legal or public procurement challenges can also delay the project.
But officials like General Georgelin insist that 2024 is an "extremely mobilizing" goal, pointing out that it is a deadline to reopen the cathedral for religious services, so as not to complete the reform completely.
"Obviously, everything will not be done, but the interior will be," said General Georgelin, adding that he expects a two-month delay after the blockade.
"Two of the 60 months do not justify throwing in the towel and saying that the schedule will not be valid," he said.
After the old scaffolding has been removed, workers will be able to check the condition of the vaults, which are still covered in charred wood and metal, giving architects a better sense of Notre-Dame's overall strength.
Actual renovation work – and final decisions on how to rebuild the roof and the tower – are not expected before 2021. But city officials tell the plaza in front of the cathedral and the crypt below will reopen much sooner, as lead decontamination efforts were ending when the blockade began.
Money has not been as problematic as time. Some 340,000 donors pledged nearly $ 1 billion after the fire. So far, only $ 200 million has been raised, but most donations are legally binding.
When billionaires withdrew their checkbooks last year for Notre-Dame – just after months of turmoil in the Yellow Vest – it created an intense debate in France about wealth inequality. Part of that debate has taken place again in recent weeks, as some have argued that France's public health system could have used similar funds.
When Macron visited a hospital in Paris in February to discuss the coronavirus crisis, Dr. François Salachas, a neurologist, confronted the president because of the hospital's underfunding.
"When we had to save Notre-Dame, there were many people who were moved," said Salachas, in a clip which was widely publicized on social media. "Now we have to save public hospitals, which are on fire at almost the same speed as Notre-Dame."
Christophe Girard, deputy mayor of Paris responsible for culture, said that "those who were on the front lines a year ago were emergency workers, the Red Cross, firefighters" – the same ones, he noted, who are now on the lines front of the fight against coronavirus.
"The biggest entrepreneurs, the biggest sponsors, the biggest companies" did not hesitate to donate millions to the cathedral, Girard added. "What we are able to do for Notre-Dame, we must be able to do for the most essential things."