French general in charge of Notre Dame rebuild dies in a hiking accident

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Jean-Louis Georgelin, the French general in charge of reconstructing the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, died Friday 18 August in a fall while trekking in the Pyrenees mountains. President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to one of France’s “greatest soldiers” who “stone by stone was restoring the wounded beauty of Notre Dame”, and expressed regret that he “will not be able to see its reopening with his own eyes”. The death of General Georgelin, 74, reflects “a life always turned toward the summits”, the French President said in a statement.

This is not good news for the agency in charge of rebuilding Notre Dame, as the late general had considerable authority and a special connection with Emmanuel Macron. This relationship helped speed up the works in a bid to fulfill the president’s pledge to reopen the cathedral next year. Experts have criticised the president for a timeline they consider unrealistic, and it is now officially admitted that the cathedral will not reopen before the Olympic Games, as Emmanuel Macron had promised. After several delays, a ceremony is now planned on 8 December 2024, but this might well be only a partial opening.

A decorated officer, General Georgelin was known for his strong character. He did not mince words when deploring the lack of maintenance of France’s churches or the urban degradation of Paris. When Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect in charge of Notre Dame threatened to resign if the spire was not reconstructed as it was before the fire, Georgelin publicly suggested he “shut his big mouth”. Ultimately the state decided to entirely rebuild the cathedral in its original form with traditional materials, such as oak and lead. The two men met every week for a working lunch to follow the progress of the 1,000 workers and artisans working on the project across France. The €800m budget is managed by an agency which was freed by parliament from the normal rules covering urban, environmental and heritage issues.

Born in the Pyrenees in 1948, General Georgelin was a practising Christian who told me he would ”read and meditate on the Bible everyday”. He attended the Saint-Cyr military high school and studied at the US Army College at Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), before serving in infantry and parachute regiments. In 1997, he entered the command of the Nato-led Stabilisation Force (SFORA) after the war in Yugoslavia. He was appointed military chief to late President Jacques Chirac and then chief of the French armies from 2006 to 2010. He became chair of the National Order of the Légion d’honneur, and reportedly opposed Bob Dylan receiving the highest civil decoration instituted by Napoleon because of the musician’s past drug use and involvement in pacifist demonstrations. His ties with culture were mostly through music (he played Bach on the organ) and cultural monuments, which he described as “expressing the greatness of French history”. He claimed that there was ”probably not an abbey in France he had not visited” and he could not forgive the Paris Commune for the destruction of the Tuileries royal palace next to the Louvre in 1871. He said his love for cultural heritage was only rivalled by a special devotion to the mountains.

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