"It's up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, “It's up to us to find the thread of our national project." Mr Macron was speaking in a televised address on Tuesday evening, following the devastating fire that destroyed much of Notre Dame cathedral. "We'll rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully,” he went on to say, “and I want it to be completed in five years."
Given that several experts in the field have since commented that the 850-year-old Gothic building, which lost its spire and much of its roof on Monday night, could take “decades” to rebuild, the five-year time frame, which coincides with Paris hosting the Summer Olympics in 2024, seems optimistic at the very best. However, in terms of raising the necessary funds to complete the work, it perhaps doesn’t seem as insurmountable as it sounds, given that the donations which have been flooding in towards the restoration already look set to reach EUR1bn today.
As reported widely in the media, French companies Total and L’Oreal have each pledged to donate €100m, Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault and the Arnault family, which owns the LVMH Group, have pledged a combined total of €500m, JC Decaux, the French outdoor advertising group have committed €20 million and French bank Société Générale €10 million. And corporate support has not solely been limited to French-based donors, with both Apple and Disney among those also pledging to contribute to the rebuild. However, despite this collective demonstration of goodwill it has not been welcomed by some, who feel that such generosity is misplaced.
Prominent figures from politicians and sports stars to authors and broadcasters are among those who have voiced their criticism, questioning why such significant sums are being donated to a rebuilding project rather than being put towards humanitarian or social issues, sentiments that have also been echoed across social media. Questions have also been raised about the tax breaks linked to such pledges - French corporations are eligible for a 60 per cent tax rebate on cultural donations - something that has particularly angered supporters of the country’s Yellow Vest movement.
Whether such criticisms are deemed valid or not, there are wider implications surrounding the issue that should also be considered, and were raised by Oliver Williams in his article for Forbes.com. Firstly, will such a backlash prompt those in a financial position to do so to simply not donate at all? Secondly, many of those who have publicly declared their support for the Notre Dame project are likely to already donate to other projects and charities. And thirdly, will such public ‘calling out’ eventually lead to philanthropists curtailing their charitable spending?
In this instance, and perhaps somewhat uniquely, one must also not forget the nature of the particular project when considering the motivations to donate, with news of Notre Dame’s devastation affecting many quite profoundly. Carmen was among those who were deeply moved by the reaction of Parisians who had gathered together on the street after the fire to sing hymns and pray together, sharing a video of the vigil on social media. And this emotional reaction was mirrored across the globe, highlighting the esteem in which the cathedral is held, its place in history and deeper meaning.
Notre Dame has been a symbol of Paris since the 12th century. The UNESCO World Heritage site was the seat of some of the most notable coronations, including that of Emperor Napoleon, and has survived damage in the past – from the French Revolution to Nazi occupation. Not only is it one of the most sacred places in France, and indeed to Catholicism worldwide, but it has a broader meaning beyond religion. As Edward Berenson, a history professor who specializes in French history at New York University, explained to ABC’s Meghan Keneally, “Notre Dame has evolved into a place where every French person feels it belongs to them, whether they're religious or not, and I think that’s the really key point: it has national meaning. It’s one of the things that’s associated with France even more so than the Eiffel Tower."
Looking beyond the backlash, ideally the publicity surrounding the donations will serve to inspire others to give what they can to causes they hold dear, whether that be humanitarian or social issues, environmental or human rights campaigns. Many ordinary citizens have contributed to the Notre Dame fund, despite the majority of press coverage being centered on the few, and the mobilization of people from all walks of life demonstrates once again how following such a tragedy, it is not wealth that drives the desire to help, but human spirit.