Donations, design squabble shatter French unity over Notre-Dame

Thursday, April 18, 2019

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PARÍS, France (AFP) — "I believe profoundly that we need to turn this catastrophe into an opportunity to come together," French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address after the Notre-Dame blaze this week. The sense of national unity lasted less than 48 hours.

While political parties suspended their campaigns for European parliament elections after the fire on Monday night, by Wednesday squabbling had broken out over the private donations pledged to rebuild the masterpiece.

France's culture minister pleaded Thursday for an end to the arguments about whether some of the 850 million euros (US$950 million dollars) pledged to restore Notre-Dame cathedral might be better spent on the poor or needy.

"This pointless debate consists of saying 'it's too much money for Notre-Dame when 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.

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

Some of France's biggest companies and richest tycoons, including luxury goods rivals Francois-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault, have pledged amounts of 100 million euros or more for Notre-Dame after it was gutted by fire on Monday evening.

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

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

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.

"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. - Other priorities -

Conservative French politicians also expressed concern Thursday about the prospect of modern architecture being added to Notre-Dame cathedral after the government invited design proposals for a new roof and spire.

Macron, 41, has set a five-year target for the reconstruction to be completed and has said "an element of modern architecture could be imagined".

"Let's stop this madness: we need to have absolute respect for French heritage," Jordan Bardella from the far-right National Rally told LCI channel, rejecting the idea that "some modern art thing" might be added.

"Modern art makes me nostalgic for the arts of the past," he added.

The vast sums pledged to restore the cathedral have also drawn attention overseas.

Sweden's teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg also used the reconstruction effort to underline her message that the environment should be humanity's biggest priority.

"Notre Dame will be rebuilt, I hope its foundations are strong, I hope that our foundations are even stronger, but I fear they are not," she told the European parliament on Tuesday, referring to the fight against climate change.

Writer and historian Mike Stuchbery, writing on the Huffington Post, reminded donors of their responsibility to the poor.

"It's important for some to remember that such a wonderful edifice was built to celebrate a faith that emphasises giving aid and comfort to the poor, regardless of who they are," he said.

In Britain, a satirical online article went viral after it compared the reaction to the Notre-Dame disaster and the fatal fire at London's Grenfell tower block in 2017 in which 71 people lost their lives.

"Former Grenfell residents have expressed regret that they didn't splash out on pretty stained glass windows before their tower burned down," said the post on newsthump.com.


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