France

A ‘pointless’ row or should the Notre-Dame donations be spent on France’s poor?

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France's culture minister pleaded Thursday for an end to the controversy over the 850 million euros (950 million dollars) pledged to restore Notre-Dame cathedral, which critics have suggested would be better spent on the poor.

Some of France's biggest companies and billionaires, including luxury goods tycoons Francois-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault, have pledged amounts of 100 million euros or more to rebuild the landmark after it was gutted by fire on Monday evening.

The vast sums have drawn fire in a country where wealth inequality and the plight of the low-income households have been highlighted during five months of demonstrations by "yellow vest" protesters.

"This pointless debate consists of saying 'it's too much money for Notre-Dame even though there are needs elsewhere' — of course there's a need for money for the social system, for health, the fight against climate change," Culture Minister Franck Riester told RMC radio.

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Photo: AFP

"But let's leave this extraordinary show of generosity to run its course," he pleaded.

He said Notre-Dame was "not only old stones. It's a part of our identity, it's our nation, European culture."

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The controversy has undercut hopes expressed by President Emmanuel Macron for the divided country to "come together" in the wake of the fire, which is widely suspected to have been caused by renovation work underway on its steeple.

"It's very disturbing to see how in France you get criticised even when you do something," Arnault said on Thursday at a shareholder's meeting when asked about the row.

Some leftist politicians have argued that the ultra-rich donors could best help protect the country's cultural heritage by fully paying their taxes — or helping the "human cathedral" of people in need.

"In one click, 200 million, 100 million. That shows the inequality which we regularly denounce in this country," the head of the CGT trade union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.

"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 (in France)," he added.

The huge tax breaks available on the donations also caused some unease, prompting Pinault to announce he would forfeit the rebate on his contribution.

Photo: AFP

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