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Billionaires rushed to save Notre Dame. Amid backlash, economists now say they may have pledged more than needed

Billionaires rushed to save Notre Dame. Amid backlash, economists now say they may have pledged more than needed
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There are urgent causes for which aid groups have for years failed to collect enough money: The plight of Iraqi Christians, for instance, or food for those suffering through what the UN has called the “world’s worst famine in 100 years,” in Yemen.

And then, very much on the other end of the spectrum, there are funding campaigns that not only meet their targets but overshoot them within days.

The union of French construction economists, Untec, released preliminary numbers this week, indicating that the rebuilding efforts of Notre Dame will cost $330 million (U.S.) to $670 million, not including tax.  (Thibault Camus / Associated Press)

The reconstruction of Notre Dame, French economists now say, may be one of them. The union of French construction economists, Untec, released preliminary numbers this week, indicating that the rebuilding efforts will cost $330 million (U.S.) to $670 million, not including tax.

The calculation is not an official estimate and groups dedicated to preserving French cultural heritage cautioned that the final costs could be higher.

The figures raised new eyebrows in France, after billionaires who rushed to save the historic cathedral faced a backlash over their donations all week. Depending on the estimate, $835 million to more than $1 billion in donations have been pledged, with most of the money coming from some of France’s wealthiest families.

The first major donations were pledged before the fire had even been extinguished last Monday. Luxury goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault said he would contribute $112 million, followed by his rival Bernard Arnault who announced a donation twice his competitor’s amount. Later on, L’Oreal’s Bettencourt Meyers family and the chief executive of French oil giant Total announced similar contributions.

Homeless activists outside Notre Dame demand ‘a roof too’

As the pledges were made, individuals associated with France’s wealthiest families argued the donations were tributes to the historical and cultural significance of Notre Dame.

Pinault’s wife, actress Salma Hayek, said the family understood “the importance of this spiritual, cultural and historical treasure from Paris to the world.”

But Paris is also a capital city with almost 30,000 homeless people, where only wealthy tenants can afford to live near the revered cultural treasures in the historic centre. In some Parisian neighbourhoods, more than 40 per cent of all residents live below the poverty line. The wealthy central districts largely balance those inequalities out, which is why — at least on paper — Paris has an overall poverty rate of 14 per cent that is on par with the French average.

France has some of Europe’s highest taxes and social inequalities are still less severe than in the United States, but anger over President Emmanuel Macron’s failure to reduce income gaps has mounted.

It hasn’t helped that the former investment banker and youngest-ever president in French history has often appeared out-of-touch with working class voters. Last year, in an incident widely mocked by opposition politicians, he told a man struggling to find work: “If you are ready and motivated, in the hotel industry, in cafes, restaurants, in construction, there is not a place where I go where I don’t get told, ‘We are looking for people.””

In recent months, the anger over inequality and Macron’s perception as being a “president for the rich” spilled into the open, as the Yellow Vest movement took to the streets of France. While public support for the movement has faded amid outbreaks of violence during those rallies, Macron’s approval ratings have not improved and the movement’s original concerns are still shared by a large number of voters.

Those tensions and the debate over the reconstruction of Notre Dame merged last week, when Macron personally promised during a TV address: “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years.”

That promise sounded hollow to his critics, however, who recalled then-presidential candidate Macron vowing to “work for everyone,” back in 2017.
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