[Marxism] As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask: What About the Needy?
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
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
“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
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
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
“Of course there is reputation washing involved,” said Anne-Elisabeth
Moutet, a French commentator, who saw the initial gifts as fundamentally
“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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