Why making Paris’ Sacré-Cœur a historic monument is causing a stir

More than a century after its completion, the iconic basilica is set to get official recognition equal to that of the Notre Dame and the Louvre museum. But its bloody past is making the decision a controversial one - even today.

Why making Paris' Sacré-Cœur a historic monument is causing a stir
The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is one of France's most popular tourist attractions. Photo: AFP

French authorities this week launched the process to turn the famed building into a listed moment, exactly 100 years since it was consecrated in 1919.


The basilica draws some 10 million visitors a year and has become the most-visited edifice since the blaze left the Notre Dame tarnished in 2019, regional authorities said.

Yet, it lacks the same official status as the cathedral.

“The Sacré-Coeur is one of the symbols of Paris. But, as astonishing as it seems, it is not protected as a historic monument,” said Laurent Roturier, head of the Paris region's cultural affairs, in a press statement published on their website.

“[We] wanted to give this building the recognition it deserves with regard to its architectural quality.”

Why has it taken so long?

Notre Dame became a listed historic monument in 1862, and the Louvre museum in 1889.

That it took more than a century from the first stone was laid back in 1875 until the Sacré-Coeur soon would be able to claim the same title, is in large part due to its bloody history.

The monument is associated with the ‘’bloody week’’ of May 1871, when a radical left-wing group known as the Paris Commune rebelled against the government.

In a bloody battle the anti-monarchist rebels executed many of their hostages, including two French generals, on the Montmartre hill, precisely where the Sacré-Cœur stands today.

“These quarrels are behind us but have delayed the protection process,” Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot told French media this week.

The other reason, she said, was that for a long time it was seen as an eyesore, reflecting widespread “disdain for 19th century buildings”.

The culture minister was referring to that some find the Sacré-Cœur, which has been nicknamed the “Alabaster Wedding Cake”, ugly.

Back in the day when it was built, famous French author Emile Zola expressed his disdain for the basilica in his book Paris, calling it a “slap in the face of reason” that was “built to glorify the absurd.”

A bit more close to our time, some “anti-Sacré-Cœur” militants have asked for it to be demolished, comparing it to a “wart”.

But, considered its high visiting numbers, it seems that most tourists and French enjoy the views of the building. And, with its soon-to-come official recognition, they will be able to do so for a long time to come.


Member comments

  1. I found your comment visited by 10 million visitor interesting. Is that 10 million tourists? How many Parisian go to mass there? I attended several times and it was almost empty. Is it really a good building, or is it for tourists? I think the later. Does it deserve Historic Status? For the tourists maybe. As a Roman Catholic I know I can attend Mass everyday of the week in Paris in a different church for well over a month. So it is not its religious significance that is important. Is what happened there important? I will disagree that it is a symbol of Paris as there are others that are remembered by people instantly. Personally I find it way to touristy and sketchy. But people who have this romanticized vision of Paris will disagree with me. What is the most iconic monument in Paris then? The Tour Eiffel or maybe the pyramid at the Louvre? I wonder what monument native Parisians think represents their city? I have always liked the Charles V wall, the history that it has seen. Also possibly Arenes de Lutece, it is hard to believe Paris goes farther back than Roman times. I love your city and its history and I can not wait to return.

  2. I have always thought that Sacré Coeur was astonishingly ugly (the appalling imbalance between the oversize turrets and the domes beneath them for a start and their grossly disproportionate relation to the whole) with the travertine stone used for it recalling that used by Canova for his bilious pastiches of classical sculpture. It is also undeniably a political symbol, and a long outdated one at that, intended to symbolise the post-Commune triumph of Catholic reaction and the “Government of Moral Order” of the Third Republic, which linked Catholic institutions with secular ones, in “a project of religious and national renewal, the main features of which were the restoration of monarchy and the defense of Rome within a cultural framework of official piety,” of which Sacré-Cœur is the chief lasting, triumphalist monument. It was deliberately placed on the Butte Montmartre for two reasons: first, it literally rests on the bodies of those murdered by the anti-commune forces in Montmartre, symbolising their defeat, and secondly it is visible throughout virtually the whole of Paris as a reminder of that bloody suppression and a warning against people ‘forgetting their place’ in that sacred order so loved by the anti-communards and their successors such as Marion Maréchal (Le Pen the Even Younger). Why tourists go there baffles me, although the view from there is good and also mean you don’t have to see the basilica itself but more likely it’s just part of the ritual trip alongside the Place du Tertre: been there, done that, got a selfie and a T shirt.

  3. As a Catholic, I love Sacré-Coeur. Every time I go to Paris I make sure to go to Mass there, or even just for a visit. It’s beautiful.

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