The lesson from the ruins of Notre Dame: don't rely on billionaires

"They don't want their money "just to pay employees' salaries."

Barely has the fire been put out before some of the richest people in France rush to help rebuild it. From François-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci, comes €100m (£90m). Not to be outdone, the Arnault family at Louis Vuitton put up €200m. More of the wealthy join the bidding, as if a Damien Hirst is going under the hammer. Within just three days, France's billionaire class has coughed up nearly €600m. Or so their press releases state.

A few folk question this very public display of plutocratic piety, but we are of course professional malcontents. Some of Paris's 3,600 rough sleepers protest at how so many euros can be found for a new cathedral roof yet not a cent to put a roof over their heads -- still, what do the poor know of the sublime? From all other seats, the applause is deafening. "Billionaires can sometimes come in really handy," remarks the editor of Moneyweek. [...]

Weeks go by, then months, and Notre Dame sees nothing from the billionaires. The promises of mid-April seem to have been forgotten by mid-June. "The big donors haven't paid. Not a cent," a senior official at the cathedral tells journalists. [...]

But for now, let's call this the Parable of the Disappearing Billionaires -- a tale that goes to the heart of much that is wrong with modern philanthropy. Whether dispensed by the Sacklers of opioid fame, or sponsored by BP at the British Museum, it often comes on the terms and timelines of the wealthy, with the epic generosity hiding a much harder bargain. [...]

They have banked the publicity, while dreaming up small print that didn't exist in the spring. As another charity executive, Célia Vérot, said: "It's a voluntary donation, so the companies are waiting for the government's vision to see what precisely they want to fund." It's as if the vast project of rebuilding a 12th-century masterpiece was a breakfast buffet from which one could pick and choose.

Meanwhile, the salaries of 150 workers on site have to be paid. The 300 or so tonnes of lead in the church roof pose a toxic threat that must be cleaned up before the rebuilding can happen. And pregnant women and children living nearby are undergoing blood tests for possible poisoning. But funding such dirty, unglamorous, essential work is not for the luxury-goods billionaires. As the Notre Dame official said last month, they don't want their money "just to pay employees' salaries". Heaven forfend! Not when one could endow to future generations the Gucci Basilica or a Moët Hennessy gift shop, so you, too, can enjoy the miracle of sparkling wine, or a nave by L'Oréal (tagline: Because Jesus is Worth It).

For the super-rich, giving is really taking. Taking power, that is, from the rest of society. The billionaires will get exclusive access to the "vision" for the reconstruction of a national landmark and they can veto those plans, because if they don't like them they can withhold their cash. Money is always the most powerful casting vote, and they have it. Never mind that much of this cash actually comes from the public, as French law grants a whopping 66% tax relief on any donation -- the power is entirely private.

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One Response:

  1. Emma says:

    All those fashion houses, who worked with the Vichy government and the Nazis, wanting to have pieces of a rebuilt cathedral named for them.

    See also: https://catandgirl.com/contributions-by-viewers-like-you/

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