The horrific fire at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris on Monday stunned the world. I think we all shed a few tears as we watched the video coverage of it burning, held our collective breaths hoping that it would not burn to the ground. And it didn’t. Much of the building was saved, including, I am told, the Rose windows, a trio of immense round stained-glass windows over the cathedral’s three main portals that date back to the 13th century.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but as of early this morning, it is believed to have been an electrical fault.
Not a religious person, for me the value of the Cathédrale was historical. Old buildings have so much history, so much beauty. I have been in the Cathédrale exactly once, during my one and only trip to Paris, and I remember being awestruck by … the size, for one thing, but also the sense of … eons gone by, the sense of who built this, what it meant then and what it means now, and the beauty. They do not build buildings in this, the 21st century, that can even hold a candle to this one.
And so, naturally I was beaming when I heard that more than $1 billion had already been pledged toward the rebuilding of this magnificent structure. Within hours after the blaze, French tycoons had already pledged hundreds of millions of euros for restoration, as had some of the country’s best-known companies.
Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame shot to the top of the bestseller’s list, and the publishers of the French language editions pledged to donate all proceeds. Apple chief Tim Cook pledged an unspecified sum and the Walt Disney Company, which turned Hugo’s Hunchback into a 1996 animated feature, said it would put up $5 million. The University of Notre Dame promised another $100,000. The Bettencourt-Meyer family, the largest shareholder in the L’Oreal cosmetics empire, offered 200 million euros, while oil and gas producer Total pledged 100 million.
All great news, right? I was happy … but then … a simple statement by CGT union (Confédération générale du travail) chief Philippe Martinez made me stop in my tracks … and think …
“In one click, 200 million, 100 million. That shows the inequality which we regularly denounce in this country. 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.”
Stop. Listen. Think.
He has a point. For 22 consecutive Saturdays, the ‘Yellow Vests’ have been protesting in France, largely against the income disparity, the great divide between rich and poor, the same as we see here in the U.S.
For those who may be unaware, as we have had enough news on this side of the pond to claim our attention, the Yellow Vests movement is a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice. Even though France has less economic inequality than the United States, Canada and Britain, and has comprehensive health care under a national insurance program, there is still a ferocious and sustained outpouring of social unrest. The Yellow Vests began their protests last November, and have continued undeterred, with the protest intensifying in recent weeks.
French President Emmanuel Macron was just about to announce a crackdown on the Yellow Vests, when news came of the fire at the Cathédrale, and instead he seized on the fire to try to bring unity to his nation.
The grievances of the protestors were magnified by concerns that France’s wealthiest would be able to benefit from tax breaks for their sizable donations to rebuild the cathedral. Now, when I considered this, MM Martinez and the protesters have a point … a few of them, actually. They have been protesting, in part, for a higher minimum wage (sound familiar?) from some of those very companies that have pledged millions to help re-build the Cathédrale. If they could spare those millions … then why didn’t they use some small bit of them to raise the wages of their workers? And, while their donations are generous and appreciated, why should they get a tax break for it, when it constitutes a small portion of their wealth? That tax break will only further deprive people in need.
Something else to consider …
“Many people claim that during the past few years there have been many tragic losses around the world, with many people losing their home and their loved ones, yet nobody has ever donated this much money to any of the causes. Notre-Dame example shows how many of the world’s problems could be solved if the world’s richest people would donate to those in need.”
Historic landmarks have value for us, and it is heartbreaking to see one fall. Mind you, I think that the Cathédrale Notre-Dame should be re-built. Originally built in the 12th century, it does have value for us today, and I was among those who shed a tear over its devastation. However, as I have noted before, billionaires are pretty useless, hoarding their billions to spend on what pleases them, or saving them just to see the digits on their investment portfolio increase. If they have the money to donate to restoring the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, then why are they not paying their employees fairly – a living wage such that they do not have to struggle and live payday to payday? Why are they seeking tax shelters, often paying less than those who earn a small fraction of what they do?
Yes, re-build the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, but not at the expense of the average citizen. Rebuild and dig a little deeper in those pockets to help take care of the French people as well. A building can be rebuilt … a life cannot be replaced.