Small donors, not French tycoons, help pay Notre Dame works
PARIS — The billionaire French donors who publicly proclaimed they would give hundreds of millions to rebuild Notre Dame have not yet paid a penny toward the restoration of the French national monument, according to church and business officials.
Instead, it's mainly American and French individuals, via Notre Dame charitable foundations, that are behind the first donations paying the bills and salaries for up to 150 workers employed by the cathedral since the April 15 fire that devastated its roof and caused its masterpiece spire to collapse. This month they are handing over the first private payment for the cathedral's reconstruction of 3.6 million euros ($4 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."
Almost $1 billion 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 inferno. It prompted criticism that the donations were as much about the vanity of the donors wishing to be immortalized in the edifice's fabled stones than the preservation of France's church heritage.
Francois Pinault of Artemis, the parent company of Kering that owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, promised 100 million euros ($112 million), while Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of French energy company Total, said his firm would match that figure. Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury giant LVMH that owns Louis Vuitton and Dior, pledged 200 million euros ($224 million), as did the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation of the L'Oréal fortune.
None of that money has been seen, according to Finot, as the donors wait to see how the reconstruction plans progress and fight it out over contracts.
The reality on the ground at Notre Dame is that work has been continuing around the clock for weeks and the cathedral has had to rely partly on the charity foundations to fund the first phase of reconstruction.
The Friends of Notre Dame de Paris was founded in 2017, and its president, Michel Picaud, estimates that 90% of the donations it has received have come from American donors. Indeed, Picaud just returned from a fundraising trip in New York.
"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 U.S.," Picaud said.
The first private check toward the rebuilding, according to Picaud, is being transferred by the foundations for 3.6 million euros ($4.1 million). That also includes funds from mainly small French donors, collected by the sister Notre Dame Foundation. The French state has also paid funds toward the massive consolidation operation.
While the billionaire donors delay signing their checks, the workers at the cathedral face the epic task of cleaning up the lead poisoning that has become an issue for the Parisian island on which Notre Dame is located.
An estimated 300 tons of lead that made up the cathedral's roof melted or was released into the atmosphere during the fierce blaze, which sent out toxic dust. The city's regional health agency says high levels of lead are now present in the soil of the island, the Ile de la Cite, and in nearby administrative buildings. It has recommended that all pregnant women and children under 7 living nearby take blood tests for lead after an abnormally high level was detected in a child in the area.