French tycoons yet to pay towards Notre Dame repair bills

Billionaires who promised massive donations have not paid anything so far

Notre Dame de Paris cathedral under repair after it was badly damaged by a huge fire on April 15th. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty

Notre Dame de Paris cathedral under repair after it was badly damaged by a huge fire on April 15th. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty

 

The billionaire French donors who publicly promised large donations totalling hundreds of millions to rebuild Notre Dame have not yet paid a cent towards the restoration of the French national monument, according to officials.

Instead, it has been mainly American citizens, through the charitable foundation Friends of Notre Dame, who have footed the bills and paid salaries for up to 150 workers employed since the April 15th fire that devastated the cathedral’s roof and caused its famous spire to collapse.

This month the foundation is handing over the first payment for the cathedral’s reconstruction of €3.6 million.

“The big donors haven’t paid. Not a cent,” said Andre Finot, senior press official at Notre Dame.

“They want to know what exactly their money is being spent on and if they agree to it before they hand it over, and not just to pay employees’ salaries.”

Hundreds of millions was promised by some of France’s richest and most powerful families and companies, some of whom sought to outbid each other, in the hours and days after the fire.

It prompted criticism that the donations were as much about the vanity of the donors wishing to be immortalised in the edifice’s fabled stones than the preservation of church heritage.

Francois Pinault of Artemis, the parent company of Kering which owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, promised €100 million, while Patrick Pouyanne, chief executive of French energy company Total, said his firm would match that figure.

Bernard Arnault, chief executive of luxury giant LVMH which owns Louis Vuitton and Dior, pledged €200 million, as did the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation of the L’Oreal fortune.

No money has been seen, according to Mr Finot, as the donors wait to see how the reconstruction plans progress and fight it out over contracts.

The reality on the ground is that work has been continuing around the clock for weeks and, with no legal financial mechanism in place to pay the workers, the cathedral has been reliant on the charity foundation to fund the first phase of reconstruction.

Donations

The Friends of Notre Dame de Paris was founded in 2017, and its president, Michel Picaud, estimates that 90 per cent of the donations have come from American donors.

“Americans are very generous toward Notre Dame and the monument is very loved in America. Six out of our 11 board members are residents in the US,” Mr Picaud said.

While the billionaire donors delay signing their checks, the workers at the cathedral can afford no such luxury as the risk of lead poisoning has become an issue for the Parisian island on which Notre Dame is located.

The estimated 300 tonnes of lead that made up the roof melted or was released into the atmosphere during the blaze, and sent toxic dust around the island with high levels present in the soil and in administrative buildings, according to Paris’ regional health agency.

It has recommended that all pregnant women and children under seven take a blood test for lead levels.

Two dedicated workers have been cleaning the toxic lead dust from the forecourt for weeks, and up to 148 more have been cleaning inside and outside the edifice as well as restoring it, according to Mr Finot.

The French parliament is slowly passing back and forth amendments to a new law that would create a “public body” to expedite the restoration of the cathedral and circumvent some of the country’s famously complex labour laws.

French president Emmanuel Macron has said the work should be completed within a five-year deadline. He has appointed former army chief General Jean-Louis Georgelin to oversee the reconstruction and crack the whip, but critics have said the timeline is overly ambitious.

A spokesman for the Pinault Collection acknowledged that the Pinault family had not yet handed over any money despite the progress of works, blaming that on a delay in contracts.

“In short, we are willing to pay, provided it is requested in a contractual framework,” said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, adding that the Pinault family plans to pay through the Friends of Notre Dame.

The LVMH Group and the Arnault family said in a statement that it would also be working with the Friends of Notre Dame, that it was signing an agreement and that “the payments will be made as the work progresses”.

Total has pledged to pay through the Heritage Foundation, whose director general Celia Verot confirmed the multinational has not paid a penny yet and is waiting to see what the plans are and if they are in line with each company’s particular vision before they agree to transfer the money. – AP