Cover Image of The Price of Humanity: How Philanthropy Went Wrong—and How to Fix It. Melville House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Amy Schiller.
Fire compresses the experience of time.
Moments feel like eternity, seconds can erase centuries of reality.
On the night of April 15, 2019, the fire of Notre Dame de Paris compressed the emotions of millions of people, felt across eight centuries, into a few anguished hours.
Notre Dame sits on an island named Ile de la Cite, accessible via eight bridges (and, more recently, a nearby Metro stop). The setting is a consummate example of two elements that define sacred space, “path and place.” Ile de la Cite sits apart from the secular world. Crossing the bridges provides subliminal cues—a slowing cadence, a broadening horizon—that one is transitioning to a special modality of meaning. At the same time, Notre Dame is centrally embedded in the daily life of the city. Centrally located and widely visible, it is known as “Kilometer Zero,” the starting point from which all distances are measured. Notre Dame serves as a North Star, a guiding light that emanates from roots deep within the city’s groundrock. When the cathedral caught fire, the city could—indeed, needed to—drop everything and bear witness.
Reports place the start of the fire at 6:20 PM. Due to miscommunication and gaps in the fire protection system, the fire grew to the point where thick smoke was visible from the church (and from pictures posted online) before the fire brigade was officially summoned at 6:51 PM. By 8:30, the surrounding streets were crammed with people sharing in the dread of Notre Dame’s potential destruction. All eight bridges were full of Parisians singing “Ave Maria” and “Grace Infinie” (Amazing Grace), as the fire took on ever-brighter orange cast against the darkening night sky.
Following a request from the archbishop of Paris, dozens of churches began ringing their bells, inviting the entire city to pray for Notre Dame. It has been a long time since public life was ordered by church bells. But it is an old and familiar tradition, buried deep in many Europeans’ psyches. Art historian Niall Atkinson describes the role of church bells in the Renaissance as “the acoustic art of city-building.” Beyond their strictly religious use, church bells mark thresholds of time and a radius of belonging. In Renaissance Italy, one’s place in the world was defined by the sight or sound of your hometown’s bell tower, a phenomenon called campanilismo. Dante identified bells as having a power to reconstruct attachments from the past and transport those attachments across spatial distances, “extending the protective power of one’s native city” by “carrying a comforting message to those who found themselves in transit.”
The ringing of bells drew thousands into Paris’s streets. They brought deeprooted ritual into a moment of sadness and fear. As Atkinson puts it, church bells are “sonic reference points that give meaning to the events of the city.” In this case, they brought people into contact with the past, summoning the centuries of attachment to this landmark. That feeling extended beyond Paris to viewers of newsfeeds around the world. Notre Dame is the most visited landmark in Paris, more than the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, with an estimated twelve million visitors per year.
Between 11:00 PM and midnight, the collective effervescence reached its highest pitch. During that period, fire service spokespeople confirmed that the structure would remain intact, and the blaze started to die down. Just before midnight, Notre Dame’s survival was confirmed. President Macron then thanked the firefighters and put words to the fire’s historic profundity: “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, the epicenter of our life, the standard by which we measure our distances. This history is ours. We will rebuild Notre Dame, because it is what the French people expect, it is what our history deserves, and it is our deep destiny.”
Throughout the night, financial pledges had flowed, in amount large and small, from all over the world. As firefighters saved the structure, the French Heritage Foundation announced a national fundraising appeal, implemented by a consortium of designated nonprofits (Fondation Notre Dame, Fondation du Patronimoine, Centre des Monuments Nationaux and Fondation de France). The nonprofits were deputized to solicit and collect donations, as partners with France’s Ministry of Culture, which oversees the financing of Notre Dame’s reconstruction as a public authority.
Shortly after 1:00 AM the following morning, the cathedral itself, as well as the extraordinary trajectory of despair, relief and jubilation shared by millions, all receded as a new main character emerged: big money. Once the immediate crisis resolved and the crowds dispersed, philanthropy took center stage as the mechanism for expressing devotion to Notre Dame.
A major cultural and architectural restoration project happened to be an irresistible opportunity for France’s richest men. Francois-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault own the competing luxury goods conglomerates, the former claiming brands like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, the latter Louis Vuitton. As the magnates who commodified French craftsmanship for the global masses, the two also compete in displaying devotion to cultural prestige and heritage. Each of the two men has established a museum to showcase their respective art collections. When Pinault announced via press release his family’s one-hundred-million euro pledge to Notre Dame’s reconstruction effort, it was a departure from the French norm of discreet, anonymous philanthropy, but it was also an extension of a longstanding rivalry to be France’s top culture daddy. Pinault later admitted he felt promoting his pledge was “vulgar,” but he did it to prompt his peers to follow suit.10
It worked, perhaps a bit too well for Pinault’s pride: a few hours later, Arnault announced a pledge of two-hundred-million euro, double the amount of Pinault’s, at just the right time for American newspapers to feature the new biggest donor’s name in the headlines. The same day, the Bettencourt Meyers family (owners of L’Oreal), and the French oil company Total followed suit with nine-figure pledges.
The twenty-four hours following Notre Dame’s fire may be the most successful capital campaign of all time, with nearly a billion euros pledged in a single day. But the speed and scale of the super-rich’s pledges revealed just how much money the French wealthy could offer at a moment’s notice. The enormous sums matched the exuberance of the moment, the same way a regular (non-billionaire) person might order a round of shots for the bar after they get a promotion or their sports team wins a championship. But in this case, it was too much, too soon. Here it is not the priests of Paris but the archbishop of Bed-Stuy, Notorious B.I.G., who offers the appropriate homily for Notre Dame’s fundraising backlash: the more money we come across, the more problems we see. In just a few hours, philanthropy for Notre Dame went from a feel-good sidebar to a darker, more complicated story about wealth, inequality, and social policy.
Even before his election, Macron’s opponents called him “the president of the rich,” and he seemed determined to prove them right. Macron believed France needed to attract investment and retain high-net-worth taxpayers (so they could . . . not pay taxes . . . ). Soon after he took office, he implemented tax reforms that favored the wealthiest households, including abolishing the wealth tax. Up until then, the French had not been coy about taxing their richest citizens to maintain social cohesion: the tax Macron abolished was also referred to as “the solidarity tax.” To Macron, these tax reforms would reshape France’s economic system, allowing it to compete for a larger share of global oligarchy’s spoils. Economist Thomas Piketty called the tax reforms an historic error that would fuel economic inequality. Macron basically replied, “hold my Beaujolais.” (…) French economists confirmed in numerous reports that these gains for the rich came at the direct expense of the poor and the unemployed. After Macron took office, the bottom five percent of French households saw a sharp decrease in purchasing power.
By the time of the fire, France had seen six months of populist protests by a coalition known as the Yellow Vests, named for the vests that drivers are required to keep in their cars. The vests symbolized the composition and demands of the protestors; working class people increasingly depend on their cars as housing in urban centers becomes prohibitively expensive. Increasing prices and taxation on fuel hit their wallets especially hard. The Yellow Vests’ weekly protests called attention to the rising cost of living and the disproportionate burden placed on France’s working and middle classes. They demanded lower fuel taxes, minimum wage increase, and a restoration of the solidarity tax.
The billionaires’ pledges for Notre Dame’s reconstruction fueled a narrative that had already taken hold in France: the wealthy had been hoarding massive amounts of wealth, with lots of help from a government all too happy to sacrifice its poorer citizens. The unprecedented size of the pledges backfired, transforming from a display of generosity to a confession of avarice. Optics-wise, this was an especially fraught moment for the superrich of France to pull back the curtain on the scope of their wealth, all at once and with the whole world watching.
Phillipe Martinez, head of one of France’s major trade union confederations, described how the mobilization “in one click [of] 200 million, 100 million” was proof of “the inequality we regularly denounce in this country.” The millions pledged for Notre Dame demonstrated that there was plenty of money to “help with the social emergency.” That money just happened to have been siphoned out of the government budget for social welfare, into the private holdings of the superrich.
[…] Critics saw donating to Notre Dame as an elitist priority compared to the urgent needs of life and death. Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty wrote, “if only the billionaires would feel as responsible to the world’s poor as they do a building.” Journalist Carl Kinsella tweeted, “With a click of their fingers, TWO French billionaires have given €300million to restore Notre Dame. Just imagine if billionaires cared as much about uhhhh human people.” Nicolas Duvoux described this conflict to me as “people versus stones.”
The fundraising for Notre Dame’s reconstruction was simultaneously a triumph and a fiasco for philanthropy. It showed philanthropy’s unique ability to build and sustain things of everlasting importance. At the same time, it also demonstrated how those very triumphs are undermined by preexisting conditions of economic inequality. The controversy over Notre Dame’s record-breaking fundraising revealed an important and long-overdue fissure: social injustice can threaten philanthropy’s legitimacy.
From The Price of Humanity: How Philanthropy Went Wrong—and How to Fix It. Used with permission of the publisher, Melville House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Amy Schiller.
Click here to read Amy Schiller in conversation with Rachel Sherman about The Price of Humanity.
Amy Schiller is a Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College and author of The Price of Humanity (Melville House, 2023).