WITH THE flames at Notre-Dame Cathedral came a wave of sadness from all around the world. The fire on April 15, 2019 partly destroyed the world-renown French landmark that embodies French history and identity. Many companies and individuals are sending their condolences by donating money to be used to rebuild the monument, and the total adds up to a large sum of money. However, months before the fire, there have been protests in France demanding for economic reforms that address inequality. When attention was shifted to the Notre-Dame fire, they started to question a nation’s priority—the welfare of its people or the rebuilding of a national monument.
Notre-Dame as French identity, as the heart of Paris
The Notre-Dame Cathedral has been a symbol of the French national identity ever since its construction over 800 years ago. It is regarded as an epitome of French Gothic architecture from the Middle Ages and is famous for its iconic architectural achievements including the flying buttresses, sculptures of the twelve apostles, and stained-glass windows such as the “Rose Windows” dating back to 1260. Notre-Dame has also played a role as a religious symbol that represents the center of Catholic life.
Until recently, Notre-Dame was one of the must-visit tourist attractions in France, with approximately 13 million people visiting every year and an average of 30 thousand visitors per day, according to Vox.
While the exact cause of the fire is yet to be determined, French police officials have announced that it is highly possible that an electrical short circuit from the renovation process initiated the fire. Fortunately, a large portion of the building has survived. According to Insider, the main parts that were destroyed include the spire and more than two-thirds of the wooden roof. The stained glass of the “Rose Windows” and the bell towers were deemed safe. The building’s overall shape still remains, but Franck Riester, the Culture Minister of France says, “there is still a lot of instability.”
Some of the relics in the cathedral were luckily saved, such as the “crown of thorns” that was assumed to be worn by Jesus and the tunic of Saint Louis, while many artworks and the 800-year-old organ were damaged*. In an interview with The New York Times, Patrick Palem, a veteran restoration expert predicted the reconstruction process to “take between 10 to 20 years, probably for a cost of several hundred million euros.”
“We will rebuild”
After the disaster, President Emmanuel Macron announced his plan to rebuild the cathedral “more beautiful than before.” His five-year plan immediately called for donations from all around the world. He believes that France can “transform this catastrophe into an opportunity to come together” as a nation and calls this a reminder “that our history never stops and we will always have challenges to overcome.”
Although this plan sounds overly optimistic for some people, in less than 24 hours after the fire, over $600 million were donated towards restoring the cathedral. By the third day, donations nearly reached a total of $1 billion, which many believe exceeds the cost needed while some say it is not enough. According to Minister Franck Riester, “the normal annual budget for restoring national monuments is about €300 million**.” At the same time, Andre Finot, a spokesman for the Notre-Dame says that current donations will not be enough to cover the restoration costs. So there is still a debate on how the collected money will be used.
Donors range from large corporations to individuals, but most attention has been given to wealthy family donations. According to Time, François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering*** pledged to donate $113 million and Bernard Arnault, owner of LVMH****, pledged to donate $226 million. Other well-known wealthy families have followed suit and the amount of donations doubled rapidly.
While wealthy families have been generous in donating towards restoring Notre-Dame, some critics have questioned their motives.
Under the French law, specifically the “Aillagon Law,” tax incentives are endowed for charitable donations. Individuals can get a 66% deduction of tax when one makes a charitable gift or donation, and businesses can claim back 60% under the same circumstances. Under this law, large businesses can donate large amounts of money to rebuild the Notre-Dame and receive a sizable tax reduction. After the fire the government has used this tax incentive to gain more donations. There was even more controversy when the individual tax reduction was raised to 75% for up to €1,000 for all donations made between April 16 and December 31, 2019.
These tax incentives have brought about more controversy as the altruism behind donations have come into question. To emphasize their altruistic motives and avoid criticism, according to CNN, the Pinault family even claimed not to receive any tax credits for their $100 million worth donation.
However, in light of the recent ongoing protests over inequality in France, the lack of support for the cause of these large sums of donations and the generous tax breaks have caused larger enragement.
The Les Miserables in France
The backlash of the tax deduction policy mostly came from the gilet jaunes or the “Yellow Vest protestors.” They are part of a movement that started with protests in November 2018 and have continued till today. Consisted mainly of the working middle class population, they have continuously fought against the Macron administration, protesting for a raise in minimum wages, lower taxes, and lower fuel costs. Many of these protestors have criticized Macron for being the “president of the rich” and an elitist. The Yellow Vest movement has prevailed in France over the course of more than 20 weeks and has created a national divide amongst citizens.
Although France is known as one of the countries that generously redistributes income among citizens, significant economic inequalities still remain. According to the 2018 World Inequality Report, the top 10% of the French population owns 33% of the total income, while the lowest 50% owns only 23%. According to Vox, the homeless population in Paris has also increased by 21% just in the last year.
The protestors who live in these dire conditions gained more momentum in their regular protests when the Notre-Dame fire broke out and donations started spilling into the government budget. The week of the fire, protests involving 9,000 people occurred in the streets of Paris, with rioters setting fire and throwing rocks at the police, and the police fighting back with tear gas*****. Protestors marched out to the streets holding banners saying, “We are also inflammable,” demanding more attention from the higher authorities.
Yellow Vest protestors pointed out the irony of companies donating large amounts for rebuilding the cathedral when they have been indifferent about the prevalent social inequality issues in France. They argue that businesses are abusing the mere act of donating to get tax reductions and to create a positive social image of themselves to the public. Philippe Martinez, the head of France CGT worker union says, “If they are able to give tens of millions to rebuild Notre-Dame, then they should stop telling us that there is no money to counter social inequality.”
According to Etoday, protestors, claim that if the government must reimburse individuals or businesses that have given donations, the reality is that the government is covering the reconstruction cost with its own budget anyways, leaving less money for other important issues.
Protestors are offended that the money that could be spent on improving their living standards are being spent on a building, which although is special to their country, could be less of a priority than citizen welfare. In an interview with City News 1130, a protestor said, “I think what happened at Notre-Dame is a great tragedy, but humans should be more important than stones.”
Which fire is more urgent?
The government has been using this fire as a way to create national unity. However, when the country has been divided for so long, what does “unity” translate to the French people?
Both the Notre-Dame fire and the burning rage of the protestors are fires that must be put out by the government, yet it is hard to extinguish both at the same time.
While the government is trying to quench the Yellow Vest fire with the Notre-Dame fire by trying to create a sense of national unity among citizens, it isn’t that easy. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Alex Kaiser, a tour guide in Paris and a Parisian native, said “I was angry at the fact that politicians were using the tragedy to create a false sense of unity as if the problems were not about yellow jackets, but about Notre-Dame.”
The government made some attempt to address the Yellow Vests. Macron made a public speech on April 25 where he acknowledged their demands to be “fair,” and according to BBC and Politico, promised “tax cuts, higher pensions and a reform of the civil service.”
While these are a step in the right direction, these reforms won’t happen overnight. Only after there is concrete action will we see if these changes will have a genuine effect on appeasing the Yellow vest protests, especially since Macron rejected other demands such as reinstating the wealth tax and holding citizen-led referendums.
“I do feel like inequalities are strong in France,” explains Kaiser, “I can see every day walking in Paris, people are sleeping in the streets everywhere, but there is very little structure to welcome the homeless people.” He calls the Yellow Vest movement a “symptom” of this state of inequality.
To Kaiser, it also looks like “the government has been actively trying to discredit the Yellow Vest movement.” The media emphasizes the “violence” of the protests degrading their message. Even after the Notre-Dame fire, the police department tweeted that “violent groups” had formed marches. “I believe the Yellow Vest movement is not inherently linked to violence, but it is easy to believe that it is if you just watch TV and read the news,” says Kaiser.
Both fires—the Notre-Dame fire and the enragement of the protestors are urgent. The attention given to Notre-Dame momentarily overshadowed the larger problem of the protest. Finally, the Yellow Vest voices are starting to be heard by President Macron, and the government reforms addressing the needs of the lower and middle class are long awaited changes.
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Notre Dame will be closed for the next five to six years but the reactions to reconstruction will continue. With the colossal amount of donations to rebuild Notre-Dame under debate, a divided nation will have to rebuild both their monument and their social trust. Should one thing be considered a priority over the other? Both rebuilding a priceless national monument and improving the welfare of citizens are crucial for the government to address. “France is a rich country. I don’t see why we cannot at the same time improve welfare, because [we know] the money is there,” comments Kaiser.
***Kering: Business conglomerate that owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent
****LVMH: Business conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton