As Notre-Dame money rolls in, some eyebrows raised over rush of funds

PARIS, April 17 (Reuters) - Pledged donations from French billionaires, companies and ordinary citizens for the restoration of fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral are approaching 900 million euros after just two days, a reflection of the landmark's resonance in the national psyche.

But the outpouring has prompted questions from charities, politicians and commentators about why some of the business donors have offered so much so quickly, including speculation about how they might benefit from tax breaks on the donations.

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Massive fire damages Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
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Massive fire damages Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
Smoke rises around the altar in front of the cross inside the Notre Dame Cathedral as a fire continues to burn in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/Pool
Smoke rises around the alter in front of the cross inside the Notre Dame Cathedral as a fire continues to burn in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
Sparks fill the air as Paris fire brigade members spray water to extinguish flames as the Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris, France, April 15, 2019. Picture taken April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
Flames and smoke are seen as the interior continues to burn inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
General view from the entrance shows smoke rising around the altar in front of the cross inside the Notre Dame Cathedral as a fire continues to burn in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/Pool
View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Flames and smoke are seen as the interior continues to burn inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/Pool
Firefighters douse flames from the burning Notre Dame Cathedral as people look on in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Firefighters douse flames from the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Fire fighters douse flames of the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fire fighters douse flames of the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smokes ascends as flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019 afternoon, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Smokes ascends as flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019 afternoon, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Smokes ascends as flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019 afternoon, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. - A fire broke out at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said.Images posted on social media showed flames and huge clouds of smoke billowing above the roof of the gothic cathedral, the most visited historic monument in Europe. (Photo by Pierre Galey / AFP) (Photo credit should read PIERRE GALEY/AFP/Getty Images)
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. - A fire broke out at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said.Images posted on social media showed flames and huge clouds of smoke billowing above the roof of the gothic cathedral, the most visited historic monument in Europe. (Photo by Pierre Galey / AFP) (Photo credit should read PIERRE GALEY/AFP/Getty Images)
Norte Dame reportedly on fire now, Paris: Via @almacy https://t.co/G1FwAvOVGD
Notre Dame, Paris, is on fire and it feels like the end of the world. https://t.co/qYYk7ewipq
Smoke billows as flames destroy the roof of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. - A major fire broke out at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky, the fire service said. The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year, where renovations are currently underway. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 15, 2019: Notre-Dame de Paris, a Catholic cathedral founded in the 11th century, has caught fire. Stoyan Vassev/TASS (Photo by Stoyan Vassev\TASS via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. - A fire broke out at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. (Photo by Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP) (Photo credit should read GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Flames burn the roof of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. - A major fire broke out at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky, the fire service said. The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year, where renovations are currently underway. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Plumes of smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. - A major fire broke out at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky, the fire service said. The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year, where renovations are currently underway. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Seen from across the Seine River, smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service said. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
A still image taken from a video shows flames and thick smoke billowing from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS TV/via REUTERS
Smoke billows from the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out, in Paris, France, April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Carriat
Smoke billows from Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out, in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A still image taken from a video shows flames and thick smoke billowing from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS TV/via REUTERS
A view shows scaffolding around the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral during restoration work in Paris, France, April 11, 2019. Picture taken April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
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People on social media, both in France and abroad, have expressed frustration that other disasters - from the Syrian and Iraq refugee crisis to the Grenfell Tower fire in London - have not received anything like the same degree of support.

The first major donation to Notre-Dame came from Francois-Henri Pinault, the billionaire head of luxury goods group Kering that owns fashion brands Gucci and Saint Laurent.

Pinault, 56, a celebrity figure in part because he is married to actress Salma Hayek, pledged 100 million euros ($113 million) as the blaze was still raging - a decision dictated by emotion, a spokeswoman for his family's holding company said.

Hours later, his great rival Bernard Arnault, France's richest man and the head of Louis Vuitton owner LVMH, announced he was donating 200 million euros, moved by the alarming pictures on TV, according to a group spokesman.

The Bettencourt-Meyer family, the largest shareholder in L'Oreal, followed suit a while later, pledging a combined 200 million euros alongside the global cosmetics group.

Brand and reputation experts said the quick response by some of France's most recognizable corporate titans made sense, especially since the disaster involves a national symbol.

Adrian Palmer, the head of the marketing and reputation faculty at the Henley Business School, said all three billionaire families and their companies were closely aligned with the nation, and benefit from reinforcing the link.

"These brands stand for France and they sell around the world, so anything that puts the France brand at the center of people's minds is going to help them and how they are regarded," he said. "It creates positive associations in people's minds, that they are generous, caring and good."

Online, LVMH's announcement of the donations was met with a host of comments on Twitter, from France and abroad, suggesting the money might be better spent in Africa or combatting climate change than rebuilding a cathedral. Others suggested the generosity was little more than smart marketing.

Palmer said that even from a non-marketing point of view, early offers of support could be beneficial for a company's political positioning. All three firms are broadly supportive of President Emmanuel Macron and want to be seen as helpful with backing for his calls to rebuild.

"Macron has been facing protests," he said, referring to the "yellow vests" street demonstrations against the high cost of living that have rocked France for months. "In a sense the disaster at Notre-Dame has become a unifying issue, so they want to show they are aligned."

 

TAX BREAKS

Still, there has been blowback. Charitable donations benefit from a 60 percent tax deduction in France, which prompted immediate suggestions by critics that Pinault, Arnault and the others were being less magnanimous than initially appeared.

"It's the public that will end up bearing the cost," said Gilles Carrez, a member of parliament for the center-right Les Republicains party, who sits on the finance committee.

The Pinault family, which was at odds with Macron last year on issues of tax and the president's policies towards the poor, said in a statement on Wednesday it was renouncing any tax advantage it might get from its donation.

LVMH - which had benefited from large tax breaks to build the Louis Vuitton Foundation in western Paris - dismissed the notion it was merely trying to boost its image.

"The only thing at issue here is to try and raise as much funding as possible to address this urgent issue, and that goes beyond any tax or accounting calculations," the LVMH group spokesman said in response to questions from Reuters.

The Bettencourt-Meyer family has declined to comment on its donations.

All three companies and the families behind them are already closely associated with the arts and cultural giving in France, which makes their rapid collective offer of half a billion euros to support a 12th-century Gothic masterpiece less surprising.

"No doubt big brands want to genuinely demonstrate their empathy and show support to the re-building of an artifact that is not just a building but a cultural symbol," said Keith Glanfield, a professor at Aston Business School.

"By some this may be seen as no more than a cynical attempt to sell more product."

 

FROM THE GUT

On Twitter and Facebook, and in the auditorium of the European Parliament, the question was less about whether they and others should give, and more about why such generosity was going towards an old building hit by a disaster in which no one died.

"We are very attached to where Father Pierre's funeral was held," said the Abbe Pierre Foundation, a homelessness charity named after a priest whose 2007 funeral at Notre-Dame was attended by then-President Jacques Chirac.

"But we are equally committed to his cause. If you could contribute even one percent of the amount to the homeless, we would be moved," it said on Twitter.

Speaking to European lawmakers on Tuesday, teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said she did not want to diminish the Notre-Dame fire, but wished there was an equal outpouring of support to combat issues such as climate change.

Markus Renner, a professor of brand management in Switzerland and the founder of the International Brand and Reputation Community, said he was surprised to see Pinault, Arnault and the Bettencourts give so much so quickly.

"Why not wait and find out how much is needed and then step forward?" he said, pointing out that the billionaires and companies could have given the money silently, but chose not to.

"It seems to be a little bit tactical and very much from the gut," he said, adding he doubted whether German companies would step up so promptly if Cologne cathedral burnt down.

If the fire ends up being covered by insurance, the charitable donations may not end up being needed to finance the restoration.

(Additional reporting by Sarah White Writing by Luke Baker Editing by Frances Kerry) 

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