How Philanthropy Failed the Notre Dame

Philanthropy and the Notre Dame

As many of you are aware, on the 15th of April a devastating fire engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral claiming much of its infrastructure including its roof and iconic spire. Within just hours of the blaze, luxury goods tycoon Francois-Henri Pinault – the owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and Cartier – announced that his family would donate €100 million. Shortly after, Bernard Arnault (LVMH owner of the brands Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy, and Christian Dior) and the Bettencoury Meyers family (owners of L’Oreal) both pledged €200 million. This was followed by donations in the millions from the likes of French multinationals such as Total, JCDecaus, Société Générale and many more.

After just 72 hours, 1 billion euros was raised, however, these donations have been met with much criticism. Many have taken to Twitter questioning why priority has been made over rebuilding the Notre Dame instead of the several religious landmarks destroyed by the Islamic State in Syria, the many unmet needs the poor are facing in France and all the other issues happening around the world.

Impact on the Philanthropic Sector

However, it is of the opinion of many philanthropists that such criticism could pose as a risk for the philanthropic sector. These billionaires are under great scrutiny for donating to the Notre Dame, but many are ignoring the fact that these billionaires do donate to many other projects too, it just so happens that this donation, in particular, has been heavily publicised. There is now concern among those in the philanthropic field that public scrutiny over their donation choice will deter them from donating to other causes in the future.

Gilet Jaune Protests

French politician Philippe Poutou has taken matters a step further and speculated that these donations were done so that they may receive a generous tax break from the state, as French corporations are eligible to a 60% rebate on cultural donations, that will be picked by none of than the French taxpayers.

Justifiably this incited 9,000 Gilet Jaune ‘yellow vest’ protesters to take to the streets of Paris and many more in other French cities on the 20th April for the 23rd consecutive Saturday, against France’s President’s Emmanuel Macron’s policies that ‘favours France’s wealthy’. The fact that almost one billion euros could be so quickly raised to restore the Cathedral, angered these protesters who have been fighting for economic inequality for France’s middle class, students and retired elders burdened by high unemployment, high taxes, expensive living conditions and poor purchasing power.

"If they are able to give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us that there is no money to counter social inequality,"

Philippe MartinezHead of France's CGT workers union

Homelessness in France

It is not only the yellow vest protesters enraged by the vast amount of donations the Parisian Cathedral accumulated, but also French public housing advocates who peacefully protested outside the Notre Dame on the Monday after the blaze with banners that read “1 billion in 24 hours!” and chanted “Notre Dame needs a roof, we need a roof too!” It is to be noted that a 2019 census from the Local found that 3,641 Parisans are homeless, a 21% increase from the year prior. In fact, Newsy also reports that 150,000 French citizens are homeless with a staggering four million experiencing insecure housing.

Rolling Stone Magazine Controversy

There has not only been outrage on where these donations should have been focused on but also on the religious and cultural importance on the rebuilding of the Notre Dame itself. The Rolling Stone Magazine published a controversial piece in which a number of architecture experts and historians were asked as to how they suppose the cathedral be rebuilt with the billions that have been donated.

While most of the experts do focus on the architectural, historical and religious importance the cathedral embodies, the same cannot be said for the other experts. The general tone of the piece is exemplified in E.J. Dickson’s suggestion that as the “Notre Dame served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place… any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France… but a reflection of the France of today.”

The most controversial remark, however, came from Harvard University architecture historian Patricio del Real, who said, “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation.”  This assertion was used by the magazine to promote the article on Twitter and has caused an uproar on the social media app:

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