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Notre-Dame fire donations pour in, spark controversy

Yves Herman, Reuters

Monday’s calamitous fire at Notre-Dame elicited an unprecedented outpouring of generosity from donors near and far, great and small. But as the embers cooled, so have cracks appeared in the initial élan of unity and controversy flared over funds.

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Donations nearing the billion euro mark

Donors had by Thursday already pledged €850 million to rebuild the 850-year-old monument. The unheard-of sum appeared with lightning speed -- not least, observers quip, thanks to a fortuitous, decades-old rivalry between two of France’s top culture-minded billionaire families, the Pinaults and the Arnaults, who head the world’s top luxury goods giants, Kering and LVMH.

The Pinaults pledged €100 million shortly after midnight on the night of the fire, with the Arnaults adding €200 million as Paris awoke the following morning. The Bettencourt family and its L’Oréal cosmetics firm chipped in €200 million later on Tuesday. Other French fortunes have followed suit (the Bouygues brothers offered up €10 million euros; Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière earmarked €10 million more to revive the building’s iconic spire).

Oil giant Total gave €100 million and advertising firm JCDecaux put up €20 million. Business concerns including French banks (BNP, Sociéte Générale, Crédit Agricole, BPCE), insurer Axa, and the pharmaceutical firm Sanofi have made pledges totalling tens of millions. La Française des Jeux, the national lottery company, is allocating its share of the proceeds from Saturday’s Easter lotto for the purpose. The City of Paris (€50 million) leads the flurry of donations from assorted levels of government across the country.

Other firms pledged help in kind. Air France-KLM offered free flights for experts officially taking part in the rebuilding of Notre-Dame. The day after the blaze, the insurer Groupama offered 1,300 oak trees from the forests it owns in Normandy, on the assumption the cathedral’s ravaged roof would be rebuilt to match the 13th-century original. Steelmaker ArcelorMittal on Thursday offered up steel. Saint-Gobain has offered its glasswork expertise.

Books, videogames, cartoons

Publishers of certain French-language editions of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, which shot to the top of bestseller lists after the tragedy, have pledged to donate the proceeds.

French video game maker Ubisoft, whose Assassin’s Creed Unity includes a faithful digital reproduction of Notre-Dame, promised €500,000 to the cause.

Abroad, Apple chief Tim Cook pledged an unspecified sum and the Walt Disney Company, which turned Hugo’s Hunchback into a 1996 animated feature, said it would put up $5 million. The University of Notre Dame promised another $100,000.

An Olympic effort

The International Olympic Committee said it would give €500,000 to boost the chances of meeting French President Emmanuel Macron’s five-year rebuild goal, with Paris slated to host the summer Games in five years’ time. “The objective of completing this reconstruction in time for Paris 2024 will be extra motivation for us all,” IOC President Thomas Bach wrote in a letter to the organisers.

In Hungary, the city of Szeged, population 160,000, said it would donate €10,000 in gratitude for a donation from the City of Paris after a flood devastated the city south of Budapest killing 160 people in 1879.

Still, the astronomical pledges from conglomerates, billionaires and government authorities the world over have not discouraged individual donors from stepping forward en masse. The Fondation du Patrimoine, or French Heritage Foundation, had collected €13.1 million in donations from individuals by late Wednesday. It is one of four organisations the French government has certified to take donations, alongside the Fondation de France, the Fondation Notre-Dame de Paris and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux.

Scam artists at work

The Fondation du Patrimoine issued a warning on Wednesday that fraudsters are seeking to profit from the torrent of generosity after the inferno. “A number of scams have been flagged to us both in France and abroad,” the organisation said Wednesday, saying any phone, mail or e-mail appeals aren’t coming from the foundation. “All of these initiatives are fraudulent.”

Taxman lends a hand

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an extra fiscal incentive for individual donors, bumping the usual tax break for such donations to 75 percent, up from 66 percent, for gifts up to €1,000.

Gilles Carrez, the conservative lawmaker who reports to the French lower house’s Finance Committee on heritage spending matters, deplored the fact that exemptions meant taxpayers would be saddled with the lion’s share of reconstruction costs. “Out of nearly €700 million [pledged Tuesday], nearly €420 million will be financed by the state, by way of the 2020 budget,” Carrez told Le Monde.

The MEDEF employers’ union, for its part, put out a statement on Thursday noting that, since Notre-Dame Cathedral belongs to the state, which serves as its own insurer for the building, all of the rebuilding costs would fall to the state anyway. “Every donation, even tax exempt at 60 percent, is therefore a 40 percent savings for the state on the amount given,” it said. In short, since no one would suggest leaving the emblematic landmark in ruin, every little contribution helps.

Some rich donors, meanwhile -- amid mounting controversy over their motivations as well as the hit to taxpayers – said they would forgo the fiscal favours attached to giving. The Pinault family said as much Wednesday and JCDecaux followed suit Thursday. LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault told a shareholder meeting on Thursday that his family holding company was not eligible for a tax break and that his firm had reached the ceiling for such benefits.

“There’s some pettiness and jealousy in the air, instead of people thinking about the general interest,” Arnault said, responding to criticism over his pledges. “In many other countries we’d be congratulated.”

Backlash

Indeed, in a country that has seen 22 consecutive Saturdays of Yellow Vest protests partly in the name of income inequality, the backlash to such spontaneous largesse is audible.

“In one click, 200 million, 100 million. That shows the inequality which we regularly denounce in this country,” CGT union chief Philippe Martinez said Wednesday. “If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre-Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency [in France].”

On BFMTV, Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the early figureheads of the Yellow Vest movement, slammed “the inertia of the big conglomerates in the face of social misery when they prove their capacity for mobilising ‘crazy cash’ for Notre-Dame in a single night”.

Culture Minister Franck Riester responded to the controversy: “This pointless debate consists of saying ‘it’s too much money for Notre-Dame even though there are needs elsewhere’ – of course there’s a need for money for the social system, for health, the fight against climate change,” Riester told RMC radio. “But let’s leave this extraordinary show of generosity to run its course.”

Meanwhile, the media personality who Macron charged with overseeing the influx of funds has pointed out that restoring the cathedral will bring France’s unique savoir-faire to bear and that the funds raised will save métiers and create jobs. “When will people understand that stones nourish men? For goodness’ sake, all of these professions would disappear!” Stéphane Bern told BFMTV. “Opposing old stones to men is ridiculous!”

Observers further afield took note of the discrepancy in action over Notre-Dame and causes like climate change or justice for the victims of London’s deadly 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg made the analogy in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday. “Yesterday, the whole world witnessed with sadness and despair the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, but Notre-Dame will be rebuilt. I hope it has strong foundations and I hope we have strong foundations, but I’m not so sure.” Evoking the panic needed when one’s house is on fire, Thunberg told the assembled lawmakers, “Our house is falling apart and yet nothing is happening. We’ll have to switch to cathedral mode. I ask you to wake up and do what is necessary.”

Knock-on effects

The sweeping breadth of fundraising for Notre-Dame did indirectly bring attention and inspire knock-on generosity for three US churches recently ravaged by arson.

As Twitter users suggested that US President Donald Trump and US Vice-President Mike Pence appeared more interested in Notre-Dame than in the three Louisiana churches attended predominantly by African American worshippers and torched by a white suspect three weeks ago, a social media campaign urged people to give.

Supporters tweeted nods to the French cathedral blaze to encourage help century-old churches an ocean away.

Among them was Hillary Clinton, who tweeted: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbours in Louisiana."

Donors responded: Pledges for the Louisiana churches spiked to $1.5 million on Wednesday night, at least quintupling the money gathered over the previous week.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS and AP)

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