Apr 24th, 2019, 11:22 AM

Notre Dame Fire: Altruism at Its Worst

By Signi Livingstone-Peters
Notre Dame on April 15th, 2019. Image Credit: Manhhai/Flickr
The inferno at Notre Dame has forced wealth inequality in France further into the spotlight.

On September 28th, 2017, The New York Times published an article. In Paris, Worn-Out Notre-Dame Needs a Makeover, and Hopes You Can Help. Cathedral officials showed journalists how eight centuries of acid rain and pollution had taken their toll on the limestone – pieces of the monument would crumble at the brush of a finger. However, time isn't the only thing to blame. Despite Notre Dame being a pivotal symbol of French identity, the cathedral had evidently suffered years of neglect. Keepers of the building plead for donations, but neither the stingy French government nor the high tax bleating one percent could muster up enough for upkeep on the building.

But on April 15, 2019, as flames engulfed Notre Dame, nobody can seem to give enough.

People gather as Notre Dame burns. Image Credit: Manhhai/Flickr

Francois-Henri Pinault, the billionaire head of luxury goods group Kering, pledged one hundred million Euros. It was, "a decision dictated by emotion," reports a spokeswoman for his family holding company. Just hours later as the blaze raged on, Bernard Arnault, France's richest man, Pinault's greatest rival and the head of the luxury brand Louis Vuitton donated 200 million Euros. The Bettencourt-Meyer family, holding significant shares in L'Oreal followed suit later that evening with 200 million Euros. 

"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."

By April 18, just three days after the infamous inferno on Ile de la Cite, the cathedral had been pledged 100 million Euros, "a reflection of the landmarks resonance in the national psyche," reports Global News. Two weeks later, the number has soared to nearly 700 million. But billionaires are facing backlash – why is such remarkable generosity going toward an old building? Many are saying that the heaps of money should be donated toward French people in poverty. And even more ironically, since November the Gilet Jaunes have lead a nationwide movement to protest wealth and social inequality. 


Gilet Jaunes protest in Paris, France. Image Credit: Jeanne Menjoulet/CreativeCommons

"After years of preaching the shrinking of the public sector, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, now wants to mobilize the full resources of the state to get the roofless cathedral rebuilt within just five years," reports The Guardian. The Gilet Jaunes, and many of their allies in France's working class that saw the money raining in to rebuild Notre Dame as further proof that Macron is prioritizing the wrong causes. "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, who leads the General Confederation of Labor Trade Union reported to Vox

But the problem reaches further than France's wealth inequality.

Where is Pinault's "emotion" in our quickly heating climate? Patches of garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean? Clean water for children in Flint, Michigan? People are living in inhumane conditions all over the world, and hundreds of NGOs lack the funds to provide aid. 

"Change the system, not the climate." Image Credit: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr

"It's important for some to remember that such a wonderful edifice was built to celebrate a faith that emphasizes giving aid and comfort to the poor, regardless of who they are," says Writer and historian Mike Stuchbery for the Huffington Post. Of course, the donations to Notre Dame are an enormous spread of generosity to reconstruct a symbol that is part of France's identity, their nation, and European culture. But in a country where recent movements have brought wealth inequality into the spotlight, perhaps humans, the very people who construct incredible works of art and culture such as Notre Dame, should be addressed first.