[Marxism] As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask: What About the Needy?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 17 15:15:18 MDT 2019


NY Times, April 17, 2019
As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask: What About the Needy?
By Liz Alderman and Steven Erlanger

PARIS — The pledges came in quick succession.

François-Henri Pinault, France’s second-richest man, put up an 
eye-popping 100 million euros to rebuild Notre-Dame, just as 
firefighters were dousing the last flames at the cathedral early Tuesday 
morning. Not to be outdone, Bernard Arnault, France’s wealthiest scion 
and a fierce rival to Mr. Pinault, upped the ante with a 
200-million-euro gift a few hours later.

By Wednesday, the government had welcomed some 850 million euros — more 
than $960 million — offered in the patriotic name of salvaging the 
cultural treasure, as money from wealthy French families, French 
companies and international corporations poured in.

But the spectacle of billionaires trying to one-up each other quickly 
intensified resentments over inequality that have flared during the 
Yellow Vest movement, just as President Emmanuel Macron was looking to 
transform the calamity into a new era of national unity. There were 
accusations that the wildly rich were trying to wash their reputations 
during a time of national tragedy.

“Can you imagine, 100 million, 200 million in one click!” said Philippe 
Martinez, the head of the militant CGT labor union. “It really shows the 
inequalities in this country.”

“If they’re able to give dozens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame,” he 
added, “they should stop telling us that there is no money to pay for 
social inequalities.”

Ollivier Pourriol, a French philosopher and novelist, summed up the 
sentiment more drolly.

“Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and 
proposes that they do the same thing with Les Misérables,” he wrote on 
Twitter, referring to another one of Hugo’s famous novels, about the 
lives of the poor.

She added: “I want to tell them: Start by paying your taxes. That will 
add to the state culture budget.”

The firestorm began when Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former culture 
minister and now adviser to Mr. Pinault, went on Twitter after Mr. 
Pinault announced his gift Tuesday to suggest that corporate 
contributions to Notre-Dame’s restoration be given a 90 percent tax 
deduction, rather than the 60 percent that corporations normally get for 
charitable contributions.

“That’s when the whole thing exploded,” said Pierre Haski, a commentator 
for France-Inter, the public radio station. “That produced outrage, that 
this act of generosity turns into fiscal advantage.”

The reaction was so intense that Mr. Aillagon went on the radio 
Wednesday morning to retract his suggestion. The Pinault family then 
announced that they would seek no tax deduction at all for the gift.

“It was very revealing about the sensitivity of the whole issue,” Mr. 
Haski said, coming in the midst of a great national debate about the 
yellow vests and their protests against inequality and fiscal privileges.

In general many are relieved that Notre-Dame still stands, and if there 
is now a billion euros to reconstruct it, without calling too deeply on 
an already stretched national budget, that may be enough.

The protests that began last autumn were originally over a gasoline tax, 
but morphed into a larger collective outcry over declining living 
standards that many average French people complained were rooted in high 
taxes, while the upper-middle classes in the big cities, let alone the 
rich, were doing just fine.

The protesters have lashed out at Mr. Macron for favoring the very rich 
by eliminating a wealth tax, among other inducements as part of his plan 
to stimulate the economy.

While he has since announced a series of modest tax cuts to help people 
struggling to make ends meet, he has refused to reinstate the wealth 
tax, a symbolic slap in the face of the protesters that redoubled their 
anger.

Ingrid Levavasseur, a founding leader of the Yellow Vests, said France 
should “get back to reality.”

“There is growing anger on social media over the inertia of big 
corporations over social misery while they are proving able to mobilize 
a crazy amount of dough overnight for Notre-Dame,” she added.

The companies contributing are among the largest in France, and account 
for tens of thousands of jobs at home and abroad in the luxury, energy 
and construction industries.

But for many, they are also symbols of an untouchable class of superrich 
who keep getting richer, thanks to a host of fiscal advantages.

Both Mr. Arnault and Mr. Pinault made their fortunes in the world of 
luxury — Mr. Arnault built the LVMH Louis Vuitton empire, and Mr. 
Pinault’s family owns Kering, the second-largest luxury group in France.

The two billionaires have been rivals ever since the so-called “handbag 
wars,” when they sparred for control of the Italian luxury group Gucci. 
Mr. Pinault eventually won.

They have both amassed huge personal fortunes, although Mr. Arnault’s, 
which Forbes estimated at 76 billion, far outpaces Mr. Pinault’s, 
estimated at a mere 26 billion euros.

Both men have built up priceless art collections and have scrambled to 
outdo one another over the years with new museums in France and Italy to 
house their treasures.

So when the billionaires announced their generous donations to 
Notre-Dame, critics were quick to note that the ample deductions would 
be made up for by the French taxpayers.

“These billionaires want to pass for heroes,” Esther Benbassa, a senator 
with the Green party, said on Twitter. “They would do better to renounce 
tax evasion and fiscal optimization.”

In the past, Mr. Pinault had also declined to take a tax break on the 
refurbishment of Paris’s historic commercial bourse in the center of 
Paris, which he is converting into a modern art museum, saying French 
taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for his personal spending.

When it looked like other wealthy donors might be able to benefit from a 
generous tax perk for their largess, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe 
sought to douse tensions at a news conference on Wednesday.

“We must be delighted that very low-income individuals, very wealthy 
individuals as well as companies want to participate in the effort to 
rebuild a cathedral that is at the heart of our history,” he said.

So far, other wealthy donors have stayed mum on the issue. Mr. Arnault, 
who quickly doubled down on Mr. Pinault’s pledge, has not issued any 
further statement.

Nor has another wealthy donor, the global cosmetics giant L’Oréal. The 
company’s heirs, the Bettencourt-Meyers, announced a 200-million-euro 
donation for Notre-Dame on Tuesday through the Bettencourt Schueller 
Foundation.

“Of course there is reputation washing involved,” said Anne-Elisabeth 
Moutet, a French commentator, who saw the initial gifts as fundamentally 
sincere.

“There’s a muscle memory of Catholicism in France and it came back,” she 
said. “We’re a secular country, but when push comes to shove,” religious 
feelings come forward.

For some French people, like Grâce Kitoudi, a customer service 
representative working in an airport, the issue seemed overblown.

In her view, the Yellow Vest crisis and the Notre-Dame fire “are two 
very different debates,” she said. “We must not confuse everything. If 
we can have donations to rebuild this incredible monument, that’s all good.”



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