[WSMDiscuss] The Yellow Vests vs the 1%

Jai Sen jai.sen at cacim.net
Fri Apr 19 21:08:39 CEST 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019

France in movement…, Ideas in movement…

[The intersection of the rise of the Yellow Vests movement in France – with all the issues it has raised - and now the burning of the spire and roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the lavish reactions that this has triggered among the 1% in the country, has only intensified the now-very-public debate in France about divisions in society and priorities in the world we live in – and / but where this too is of course only touching the tip of this iceberg :

As donations pour in, rebuilding Notre-Dame gets political

Paul Waldie, The Globe and Mail

As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask : What About the Needy?

Liz Alderman and Steven Erlanger, New York Times


As donations pour in, rebuilding Notre-Dame gets political

Paul Waldie  <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/authors/paul-waldie/>Europe Correspondent
Published 2 hours ago
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-france-president-macron-experiences-fallout-after-mass-donations/ <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-france-president-macron-experiences-fallout-after-mass-donations/>
Open this photo in gallery  <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/resizer/i3g2WCUTof7HkxzQKHS_gGuDEIs=/620x0/filters:quality(80)/arc-anglerfish-tgam-prod-tgam.s3.amazonaws.com/public/TZ7IHEKXOVBGBIFVTH6SILCFPE.jpg>
People wait for the Way of the Cross ceremony on Good Friday as part of the Holy Week celebrations, near Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 19, 2019.


As people across Paris prepare for Easter celebrations without Notre-Dame Cathedral, many are feeling hopeful that their national symbol will rise again, but there’s also growing trepidation about who will shape its renewal.

The charred hulk of the 850-year-old iconic landmark remains cut off from worshippers as investigators continue to assess how last Monday’s fire started and who, if anyone, is to blame. Most of the cathedral’s Holy Week services have been moved to the nearby Saint-Sulpice Basilica, which has been overflowing with adherents eager to share in the collective grief at the near-loss of Notre-Dame and determined to see it resurrected.

“Notre-Dame is our heart, for Christians and for everyone,” said Alexandra Fourrier as she stood with hundreds of people in a square outside Saint-Sulpice to watch a mass on a giant television screen. “We have to pray for Notre-Dame.”

But even as the prayers and hymns for the cathedral continue to ring out across the city, an unease is building over the future of the church and the role wealthy families and big corporations are playing in its destiny.

So far roughly €1-billion ($1.5-billion) has been donated to restore Notre-Dame, with most of the money coming from France’s wealthiest families, who own such luxury brands as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Other donations have poured in from Apple  Inc., energy giant Total S.A. and The Walt Disney Company, which made a feel-good cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1996. The exorbitant donations have struck a nerve in a country where a fierce debate over inequality has been raging for months and fuelling the so-called yellow-vest protests.

Top 10 pledges to rebuild Notre-Dame

Millions of Euros


Bernard Arnault


L'Oréal, Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation


Total, French oil company


François-Henri Pinault


University of Notre Dame, USA

People like Manuel Domergue find it hard to swallow. He works for a charity called the Abbé-Pierre Foundation, which helps thousands of homeless people across the country and struggles every year to raise the €40-million it needs to survive. “We have to ask the question; it’s strange to find so much money in just a few days while at the same time French generosity for charities is decreasing,” he said from his office on the outer fringes of Paris, far from the cathedral and the glare of the global media that has descended to cover the fire. “It’s impossible to compare Notre-Dame with homeless people. But it’s also impossible to give only for a building and nothing for homeless people.”

Voices on the left and right have risen up as well and chastised the government for encouraging the donations, which they say is just another way of subsidizing the rich because donors get a 66 per cent tax break on the amount given. “In one click, €200-million, €100-million [in donations],” said Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), one of France’s largest trade unions. “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 [in France].” Conservative lawmaker Gilles Carrez said the tax break could cost the treasury more than €500-million, which means ordinary people will bear the brunt of the cost.

But others have insisted the money is well-spent and some donors have hit back at the criticism, saying that in other countries their generosity would be lauded. "There’s some pettiness and jealousy in the air, instead of people thinking about the general interest,” said Bernard Arnault, whose family founded luxury-goods group LVMH and has donated €200-million to Notre-Dame’s rebuilding. The business group Mouvement des entreprises de France has also encouraged its 75,000 member companies to contribute, arguing that every euro that comes from private donors will offset money from taxpayers, since the government owns Notre-Dame and is responsible for its reconstruction.

For President Emmanuel Macron the controversy over the restoration has marred what he’d hoped would be a rare moment of national unity. On the night of the fire he called on France to pull together and “transform this catastrophe into a moment to become … better than we are.” And in a fit of exuberance he added that the cathedral would be restored “more beautiful than before” in five years, just in time for France to host the 2024 Olympic Games. He also appointed a former head of the military, retired general Jean-Louis Georgelin, 70, to co-ordinate the effort.

Within days Mr. Macron’s rallying cry began to unravel. His five-year timeline was immediately criticized by architects and heritage building experts who said it was wrong to put an arbitrary deadline on such a complex project that could take a decade. The government got into more hot water after Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a global architecture competition to redesign the cathedral’s roof, which was destroyed along with the 93-metre spire. He urged architects to come up with something “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” That drew more rebukes from experts who feared it would unleash a tug of war between those who want to preserve Notre-Dame’s original look and others who want to modernize it. “Hardly a day goes by since the fire at Notre-Dame without the President of the Republic and his government making announcements that are more absurd and scandalous,” historian Didier Rykner wrote on the website La Tribune de l’Art. He and others have said that France must adhere to the Venice Charter, an international agreement drawn up in 1964 that sets out a framework for restoring monuments in order to preserve “the full richness of their authenticity.”

Mr. Macron “wants a fast build so he can appear as the ‘sauveur de Notre-Dame,’” said Benjamin Morel, a professor at the University of Paris and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po. “So the struggle between political ambitions and common sense has just begun.”

There are other pitfalls looming for Mr. Macron. He’s struggled for months to address criticism that he’s out of touch and catering to the powerful. His moves to cut the wealth tax, slash public services and introduce changes that make it easier for companies to fire workers have sparked cries of class warfare and prompted four months of sometimes violent street protests. The President hoped to ease the pressure in January by announcing a three-month national dialogue, called the “grand debate,” and he toured the country listening to complaints. More than 1.5 million people offered suggestions and Mr. Macron was set to announce his response in a televised address last Monday. The fire at Notre-Dame threw him off course and the announcement has been delayed until after Easter. But many of his plans – including tax changes, pension adjustments and reforms to the electoral system – have been leaked to the media and his opponents are ready to pounce. The growing controversy over Notre-Dame’s refurbishment hasn’t helped because it feeds the opposition narrative that Mr. Macron cares only about the wealthy.

Already the yellow-vest protesters have vowed to take to the streets again on Saturday, enraged even more by the donations to Notre-Dame. ”The yellow vests will show their anger against the billions found in four days for stones, and nothing for the needy," one of the group’s organizers, Pierre Derrien, wrote on Facebook.

Political scientist Nicole Bacharan said Mr. Macron hasn’t gained much political capital from the fire even though his initial comments were largely well-received and his approval rating got a three-point bounce to 32 per cent. “In a way the fire gave him a chance to gather people around him, gather this emotional pain that we all feel,” said Dr. Bacharan, who also lectures at Sciences Po. “But beyond that, politically, it doesn’t seem to translate into anything good for him.”

Dr. Bacharan said Mr. Macron’s biggest problem has been his lack of political experience – he’d never run for office before being elected President in 2017 – and an inability to connect with the majority of people who don’t share the views of the yellow-vest protesters. “The mainstream in France, they don’t want a revolution, they just want things to get better. Do those people think that Macron can take them to the next spot? I’m not sure,” she said. “Every time he seems to grab control again he gives the impression that he’s losing it again.”

For now, as Easter Sunday draws closer, many people are prepared to set aside their grievances and hope for the best. Some of those who gathered at Saint-Sulpice for a special mass on Wednesday felt certain that something good will emerge from the ashes of the cathedral.

“It feels like a good sign of hope,” said university student Paco Sauvage. “At least the future generations can see it as we had a chance to see it.” His friend Quentin Huleux, who is also a student, agreed and said he’s noticed a renewed interest in faith since the fire. Like most French Catholics, Mr. Huleux doesn’t attend church regularly and Wednesday’s mass was his first in a long time. “I’ve seen a lot of people singing Christian songs in the streets,” he said. “A lot of people came back to the religion because of this, at least for this week.”

As they stood in the square and watched the mass on the big television screen, the crowd hushed as the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, rose to speak at the pulpit. "Our cathedral is on its knees,” he told the congregation. “But she will live again … she will rise again.”

As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask: What About the Needy?

François-Henri Pinault, left, and Bernard Arnault.CreditCreditEric Piermont, left, and Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By Liz Alderman <https://www.nytimes.com/by/liz-alderman> and Steven Erlanger <https://www.nytimes.com/by/steven-erlanger>
April 17, 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/world/europe/yellow-vest-notre-dame-fire-donations.html <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/world/europe/yellow-vest-notre-dame-fire-donations.html>
PARIS — The pledges came in quick succession.

François-Henri Pinault, France’s second-richest man, put up an eye-popping 100 million euros to rebuild Notre-Dame, just as firefighters were dousing the last flames at the cathedral <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/world/europe/notre-dame-fire.html?action=click&module=inline&pgtype=Article&region=Footer> early Tuesday morning. Not to be outdone, Bernard Arnault, France’s wealthiest scion and a fierce rival to Mr. Pinault and to his father, François Pinault, upped the ante with a 200-million-euro gift a few hours later.

By Wednesday, the government had welcomed some 850 million euros — more than $960 million — offered in the patriotic name of salvaging the cultural treasure, as money from wealthy French families, French companies and international corporations poured in.

But the spectacle of billionaires trying to one-up one another quickly intensified resentments over inequality that have flared during the Yellow Vest movement, just as President Emmanuel Macron was looking to transform the calamity <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/world/europe/notre-dame-fire-investigation.html?module=inline> into a new era of national unity. There were accusations that the wildly rich were trying to wash their reputations during a time of national tragedy.

“Can you imagine, 100 million, 200 million in one click!” said Philippe Martinez, the head of the militant CGT labor union. “It really shows the inequalities in this country.”

“If they’re able to give dozens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame,” he added, “they should stop telling us that there is no money to pay for social inequalities.”

Ollivier Pourriol, a French philosopher and novelist, summed up the sentiment more drolly.

“Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Misérables,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to another one of Hugo’s famous novels, about the lives of the poor.

The north face of Notre-Dame cathedral after the fire.CreditChristophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock
Manon Aubry, a senior figure in France Insoumise, the main radical left party, called the funding an “exercise in public relations.” She said the donors’ list “looks like the rankings of companies and people located in tax havens.”

She added: “I want to tell them: Start by paying your taxes. That will add to the state culture budget.”

The bickering was about as far as possible to imagine from the image of a united France the president painted when he gave a national address on Tuesday. Mr. Macron said “it is up to us to transform this catastrophe” into a moment to become “better than what we are.”

The firestorm began when Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former culture minister and now adviser to Mr. Pinault’s father, went on Twitter after Mr. Pinault announced his gift Tuesday to suggest that corporate contributions to Notre-Dame’s restoration be given a 90 percent tax deduction, rather than the 60 percent that corporations normally get for charitable contributions.

“That’s when the whole thing exploded,” said Pierre Haski, a commentator for France-Inter, the public radio station. “That produced outrage, that this act of generosity turns into fiscal advantage.”

The reaction was so intense that Mr. Aillagon went on the radio Wednesday morning to retract his suggestion. The Pinault family then announced that they would seek no tax deduction at all for the gift.

“It was very revealing about the sensitivity of the whole issue,” Mr. Haski said, coming in the midst of a great national debate about the Yellow Vests and their protests against inequality and fiscal privileges.

In general many are relieved that Notre-Dame still stands, and if there is now a billion euros to reconstruct it, without calling too deeply on an already stretched national budget, that may be enough.

But taxes have been one of the pressing issues in the Yellow Vest movement <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/world/europe/france-macron-yellow-vest.html?searchResultPosition=5&module=inline>, and the one that Mr. Macron has had most trouble defusing.

The protests that began last autumn were originally over a gasoline tax, but morphed into a larger collective outcry over declining living standards <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/02/world/europe/france-yellow-vest-protests.html?searchResultPosition=42&module=inline> that many average French people complained were rooted in high taxes, while the upper-middle classes in the big cities, let alone the rich, were doing just fine.

The protesters have lashed out at Mr. Macron for favoring the very rich by eliminating a wealth tax, among other inducements as part of his plan to stimulate the economy.

While he has since announced a series of modest tax cuts to help people struggling to make ends meet, he has refused to reinstate the wealth tax, a symbolic slap in the face of the protesters that redoubled their anger.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, an adviser to Mr. Pinault.CreditKosuke Ohara for The New York Times

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, an adviser to Mr. Pinault.CreditKosuke Ohara for The New York Times
Ingrid Levavasseur, a founding leader of the Yellow Vests, said France should “get back to reality.”

“There is growing anger on social media over the inertia of big corporations over social misery while they are proving able to mobilize a crazy amount of dough overnight for Notre-Dame,” she added.

The companies contributing are among the largest in France, and account for tens of thousands of jobs at home and abroad in the luxury, energy and construction industries.

But for many, they are also symbols of an untouchable class of superrich who keep getting richer, thanks to a host of fiscal advantages.

Both Mr. Arnault and Mr. Pinault made fortunes in the world of luxury — Mr. Arnault built the LVMH Louis Vuitton empire, and Mr. Pinault’s family owns Kering, the second-largest luxury group in France.

The two billionaires’ families have been rivals ever since the so-called “handbag wars,” when they sparred for control of the Italian luxury group Gucci. Mr. Pinault’s family eventually won.

Pledges from France’s corporations and richest families to help rebuild Notre-Dame cathedral have topped 850 million euros.CreditMartin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
They have both amassed huge personal fortunes, although Mr. Arnault’s, which Forbes estimated at 76 billion, far outpaces Mr. Pinault’s, estimated at a mere 26 billion euros.

Both families have built up priceless art collections and have scrambled to outdo one another over the years with new museums in France and Italy to house their treasures.

So when the billionaires announced their generous donations to Notre-Dame, critics were quick to note that the ample deductions would be made up for by the French taxpayers.

“These billionaires want to pass for heroes,” Esther Benbassa, a senator with the Green party, said on Twitter. “They would do better to renounce tax evasion and fiscal optimization.”

In the past, Mr. Pinault’s father had declined to take a tax break on the refurbishment of Paris’s historic commercial bourse in the center of Paris, which he is converting into a modern art museum, saying French taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for his personal spending.

When it looked like other wealthy donors might be able to benefit from a generous tax perk for their largess, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe sought to douse tensions at a news conference on Wednesday.

The spectacle of billionaires trying to one-up each other over contributions to Notre-Dame quickly intensified resentments over inequality that have flared during the Yellow Vest movement.CreditGuillaume Horcajuelo/EPA, via Shutterstock

The spectacle of billionaires trying to one-up each other over contributions to Notre-Dame quickly intensified resentments over inequality that have flared during the Yellow Vest movement.CreditGuillaume Horcajuelo/EPA, via Shutterstock
“We must be delighted that very low-income individuals, very wealthy individuals as well as companies want to participate in the effort to rebuild a cathedral that is at the heart of our history,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr. Arnault said that his family’s holding company was not eligible for a tax deductions for its contribution, as he hit back at critics. “There’s some pettiness and jealousy in the air,” he told a shareholders meeting. “In many other countries, we’d be congratulated.”

The Bettencourt-Meyers family, heirs to the global cosmetics giant L’Oréal, also announced a 200-million-euro donation for Notre-Dame on Tuesday, through the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a French commentator, said she saw the initial gifts as fundamentally sincere, though “of course there is reputation washing involved.”

“There’s a muscle memory of Catholicism in France and it came back,” she said. “We’re a secular country, but when push comes to shove,” religious feelings come forward.

For some French people, like Grâce Kitoudi, a customer service representative working in an airport, the issue seemed overblown.

In her view, the Yellow Vest crisis and the Notre-Dame fire “are two very different debates,” she said. “We must not confuse everything. If we can  have donations to rebuild this incredible monument, that’s all good.”

Correction: April 17, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated whom a former culture minister advised. He was an adviser to François Pinault, not his son, François-Henri Pinault. The article also misstated which Pinault took a tax break on a refurbishment of a building, which is being converted into a museum. It was the father, not the son.


Jai Sen

Independent researcher, editor

jai.sen at cacim.net <mailto:jai.sen at cacim.net>
Now based in New Delhi, India (+91-98189 11325) and in Ottawa, Canada, on unceded Anishinaabe territory (+1-613-282 2900) 

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