Small donors are rebuilding Notre-Dame as French billionaires delay
Bertrand Guay, AFP | People sit on the banks of the Seine river, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, under repair after it was badly damaged by a huge fire on April 15, 2019.

As Notre-Dame holds its first mass Saturday since a devastating fire two months ago, billionaire French donors who pledged hundreds of millions for rebuilding have "yet to pay a penny", a spokesman for the cathedral said.

Instead, the funds paying for clean-up and reconstruction are coming mainly from French and American citizens who donated to church charities like the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. Those charities are helping pay the bills and the salaries ofup to 150 workers employed by the cathedral since the April 15 fire destroyed its roof and caused its iconic spire to collapse.

"The big donors haven't paid. Not a cent," André Finot, a senior press official at Notre-Dame, told AP on Friday. "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."

Less than a tenth of the hundreds of millions promised has been donated, the French culture ministry said Friday. Only €80 million of the €850 million pledged has been handed over  and most of that has come in small sums given by ordinary people.

The cathedral's vaulted roof "could still collapse" at any moment, Culture Minister Franck Riester warned Friday, as he confirmed the slow pace at which pledges were turning into cash.

Almost $1 billion was promised by some of France's richest and most powerful families and companies, some of whom publicly sought to outbid each other in the days after the inferno. The pledges prompted criticism that the donations were as much about the vanity of the donors as the restoration of a cornerstone of France's cultural heritage.

François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of the Kering company thatowns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, promised €100 million. Not to be outdone, CEO Bernard Arnault of rival luxury giant LVMH  which ownsboth Louis Vuitton and Dior  pledged €200 million, as did the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation of the L'Oréal fortune. French energy company Total also pledged€100 million.

>> Notre-Dame fire donations pour in, spark controversy

The spontaneous pledges prompteda backlash in France, which has seen months of Yellow Vest protests advocating for struggling workers.Many questioned why these corporations could not mobilise similar funds in the service of larger causes, liketackling income inequality or climate change.

But none of that money has yet been received, according to Finot, as big-time donors wait to see how the sometimes controversial reconstruction plans take shape.

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Notre-Dame Cathedral to hold first mass since devastating fire

Charity, with caveats

A spokesman for the Pinault Collection acknowledged that the family hadn't yet transferred any money for the cathedral's restoration, blaming that on a delay in contracts.

"We are willing to pay, provided it is requested within a contractual framework," said spokesman Jean-Jacques Aillagon.

The LVMH Group and the Arnault family said in a statement that they were signing an agreement with the Notre Dame Foundation, a partner group to the cathedral, and "the payments will be made as the work progresses".

Total has pledged to pay its €100 million via the Heritage Foundation, whose Director General Celia Verot confirmed that the multinational has not paid anything yet. She said donors are waiting to see what the plans are and if they are in line with each company's particular vision before they agree to a transfer of money.

"How the funds will be used by the state is the big question," Verot said. "It's a voluntary donation, so the companies are waiting for the government's vision to see what precisely they want to fund."

>> Tradition vs modernity: the Debate over Notre-Dame's spire

The Bettencourt Schueller Foundation said that it, too, hasn't handed over any money because it wants to ensure its donation is spent on causes that fit the foundation's specific ethos, which supports craftsmanship in art.

Culture Minister Riester said the shortfall is due to two factors. "First, you might have people who promised to give but who in the end won't," he said.

"But mostly  and this is normal  is that the donations will be handed over as the work advances."

Riester said his officials were working with the major donors and the four French foundations that launched appeals for Notre-Dame. His ministry stressed that the biggest donors want to know when and how their money will be spent.

Olivier de Challus, one of the cathedral's chief guides and architecture experts, said one of the reasons the major French donors haven't yet paid is that there are still so many uncertainties about the direction of the reconstruction. He said architectural experts are using digital models to try to establish how much damage the fire did to the cathedral's 13th-century stone and whether its structures are fundamentally sound.

De Challus said the bulk of the funds won't be needed until the rebuilding is further along.

"It doesn't matter that the big donors haven't yet paid because the choices about the spire and the major architectural decisions will happen probably late in 2020," he said. "That's when the large sums of money will be required."

First stage, first cheque

The reality on the ground is that work at Notre-Dame has been continuing around the clock, and the cathedral has had to rely in part on charitable foundations to fund the first phase of reconstruction.

The Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris is transferring a first cheque of €3.6 million ($4.1 million) for the "first stage of reconstruction", according to the group's president, Michel Picaud.

He estimated that 90 percent of the donations the group 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 US," he told AP.

To raise funds, the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris and the French embassy in Washington, DC, organised concerts in several US cities. Notre-Dame’s chief organist, who was playing in the cathedral when the fire broke out, gave the first concert at the Catholic basilica in Washington, DC.

“Notre-Dame is the world’s church … it’s iconic for the entire world,” Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector told FRANCE 24. “You can see it in the outpouring of affection, concern and finances.”

The Notre Dame Foundation has received €15.7 million so far, “essentially thanks to 41,000 individual donors”, the foundation’s Christophe Rousselot told the Catholic news website Aleteia. “Cheques and bank transfers of an average of €200. These are beautiful gestures.”

This foundation is also expecting the €300 million pledged by the Pinault and Arnault families.

“For these major donors, we are in the process of drafting agreements with staggered payments planned based on future work. There is no doubt that these generous donors are standing with us and are extremely reliable,” said Rousselot.

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Notre-Dame's chief organist raises US funds to rebuild cathedral

While the billionaire donors delay, 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 health agency says high levels of lead are now present in the soil of Île de la Cité and in nearby buildings. It has recommended that all pregnant women and children under 7 living nearby take blood tests for lead exposure.