16 June 2023, The Tablet

Macron announces national fund for church buildings

Macron’s speech at Mont St Michel praised the site as “the symbol of the French spirit in resilience, resistance, creative and imaginative”.

Macron announces national fund for church buildings

Emmanuel Macron with his wife Brigitte at Mont St Michel on 5 June.
Associated Press/Alamy

President Emmanuel Macron announced a new fund to protect smaller churches and religious buildings around France in a speech marking the 1,000-year anniversary of the tidal-island monastery of Mont St Michel in Normandy.

The plan would be for private national subscription, similar to one of the financial schemes to fund the rebuilding Notre Dame in Paris, that would help smaller towns that cannot afford to keep up religious buildings that mostly belong to the state.

Of about 50,000 religious buildings in use in France (42,000 of them Catholic), only around 10,500 are heritage sites with access to special funds. Most depend on local mayors for public funds for any repairs.

Up to 5,000 risk closure by 2030 because of the secularisation of society, the lack of priests and tight budgets in many town halls.

Macron’s speech at Mont St Michel, a favourite setting for leaders waxing patriotic, praised the rocky site as “the symbol of the French spirit in resilience, resistance, creative and imaginative”.

After his bruising fight over pension reforms, the president can use something that appeals to France’s national pride and rich architectural heritage.

Religious leaders seemed satisfied with the announcement, while critics said it blurred the lines between Church and State in the officially secular nation.

The successful subscription for Notre Dame, for example, included a 75 per cent tax break for donors – the new fund would need something similar. 

But churches remain popular with tourists. Macron’s signature heritage projects – the reconstruction of Notre Dame and the fund announced at Mont St Michel – involve the most-visited monument in France and most-visited monument outside Paris respectively.

Macron’s scheme would involve a nation-wide inventory of religious buildings, which a French Senate report urged last year. It noted that the lack of such an inventory made it hard for Paris to identify and help crumbling rural churches in financial difficulty.

The president, baptised a Catholic as a teenager, has made support for religious heritage one of his cultural policies.

In return for more funding, local churches may have to open more for non-religious activities, such as concerts and art exhibitions.

Something similar has been launched in the Netherlands, where church closures are numerous. Maastricht city authorities will work with clerics and neighbours of about 100 houses of worship there for an overall “church vision” plan. 

“There are not many churchgoers left, so we are searchers,” said city councillor Frans Bastiaens. “Which buildings should we really keep and which ones can we say goodbye to?”

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