Massive Notre Dame Cathedral donations draw high-profile backlash

Joel Shannon

Multiple French billionaires joined an international effort this week to raise funds to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire partially destroyed the beloved historic building.

But the speed and scale of those donations has sparked a debate about income inequality and the worthiness of the cause.

The criticism comes after Francois Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault — both billionaires — each pledged more than $100 million to the restoration efforts. The rivals have a history of one-upmanship.

Other big French donors: Cosmetics company L'Oréal, along with The Bettencourt Meyers family and the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation.

Soon, international press coverage — including articles published by The Washington Post, Forbes and CNN — spotlighted negative reactions, often accompanied by a general sympathy for the rebuilding cause.

A common position among critics: The mega-donations prove social problems could be quickly addressed if the wealthy were motivated to do so.

Class tensions in France have recently been on display in protests tied to the "Yellow Jacket" movement. French President Emmanuel Macron has been a target of protesters who claim his government does not care about ordinary people or France's growing social inequalities. 

So when wealthy Frenchmen quickly pledged massive donations, some associated with the movement balked. “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,” The Washington Post quotes Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union.

It's easy to find similar sentiment on social media.

"With a click of their fingers, TWO French billionaires have given €300million to restore Notre Dame. Just imagine if billionaires cared as much about uhhhh human people," tweeted Carl Kinsella

Kinsella also wrote a widely-shared piece on the topic for Dublin-based Joe.ie. The post highlighted French poverty statistics and suggested the wealthy could solve such problems if they chose to.

And while critics have received widespread coverage, such negativity could backfire, Forbes contributor Oliver Williams wrote. As wealthy donors face scrutiny for their charitable donations, some may be hesitant to donate in the future.

The effort to rebuild, championed by Macron, has received international and high-profile support. American companies including Apple and Disney have pledged donations for the now well-funded cause.

The outpouring of support for Notre Dame has also been used by some U.S. politicians to successfully highlight other causes, such as rebuilding efforts for historically black churches in Louisiana that burned in recent arsons.

Some critics have also suggested France's big donors stand to benefit from tax breaks for their charity, but those claims have been dismissed by multiple donors, Reuters and the Washington Post reported.

Macron has said he wants Notre Dame rebuilt in five years. But architects say the repairs could take decades.

Notre Dame, the most famous Gothic cathedral from the Middle Ages, was built over a nearly 200-year span beginning in 1163 under King Louis VII. A tourist destination known for its spectacular stained-glass windows, the church has survived the French Revolution, World War I and the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. 

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and Joey Garrison, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Massive Notre Dame Cathedral donations draw high-profile backlash