Backlash Against Billionaires Pledging Funds to Assist Already Rich Institutions

CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/AFP/Getty Images

People wonder why the rich rush to restore symbolic constructions of lumber and mortar, but not people and society

Washington Post, April 18, 2019

“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,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, said on Wednesday."

PARIS — The eventual reconstruction of Notre Dame is now a foregone conclusion. Within hours of the fire that destroyed much of the cathedral on Monday, donors pledged more than $1 billion to restore the Parisian icon to its former glory.

Even before the smoke had cleared, luxury goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault announced his family would donate 100 million euros ($112 million) to the effort. Not to remain on the sidelines, his rival Bernard Arnault — the chief executive of LVMH and the richest man in Europe — pledged twice that amount on Tuesday morning. The Bettencourt Meyers family, which controls L’Oreal, quickly matched that pledge. And Patrick Pouyanne, chief of executive of French oil giant Total, offered another $112 million.

Officials are still assessing the extent of the damage, so the cost of Notre Dame’s reconstruction remains unknown, but these and the many other donations coming in should pretty well cover it.

In the meantime, the cascade of cash that materialized overnight to save the cathedral has raised eyebrows in France, still in the throes of a crippling protest over rising social inequality and whose leader is regularly decried as the “president of the rich.”

“Of course, I find it nice, this solidarity,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, a leader of the yellow vest movement that has protested inequality in a series of often violent Saturday demonstrations since mid-November. The stream of donations essentially confirmed the movement’s broader social critique, Levavasseur said.

“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,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, said on Wednesday.

The cash flow has also furrowed brows abroad, with critics emphasizing that destroyed landmarks in non-Western locales — like the ancient sites destroyed by the Islamic State in Syria — have hardly inspired such a global groundswell.

“In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame,” South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison tweeted. “In six months, just 15 million euros has been pledged to restore Brazil’s National Museum. I think this is what they call white privilege.”

Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum was incinerated in a fire in September.

Inside and outside of France, the unease has centered on a perceived disparity between concern for the fate of beautiful monuments and concern for the struggles of real people, which can be more difficult to sell to donors.

In February, for instance, the United Nations launched a record call for $4 billion in aid for Yemen, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. “Almost 10 million are just one step away from famine,” Secretary General António Guterres said in his pitch at a donor conference in Geneva. In the hours after his call, roughly $2.6 billion in pledges came in — a feat in itself. But still well short of the goal. ...
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