Misguided Competitive Philanthropy: The Challenges in Accept Donations from Billionaires in the Wake of the Devastating Notre Dame Fire
On Monday, April 15, the Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames as much of Paris and the rest of the world looked on helplessly.1 Even as the fire raged through the night, many wondered whether the cathedral, arguably France’s most well-known landmark after the Eiffel Tower and a revered religious site, could be restored to its former glory. That question was quickly answered in the affirmative by French President Emmanuel Macron, who pledged to have the cathedral rebuilt within an ambitious five years.2 While there has already been competition by architects to lead the restoration3 and an interesting discussion of using digital renderings of the cathedral from the video game “Assassin’s Creed” to help with the reconstruction4, this post will focus on the problematic pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars by a number of French billionaires to rebuild the cathedral.
While the fire was still being put out, François-Henri Pinault, Chief Executive Officer of the Kering Group which owns Gucci and Yves Saint Saurent, pledged €100 million to help rebuild the cathedral.5 Not to be outshone, the next morning Bernard Arnault, the Chairman and CEO of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, announced that he and his family will donate twice the amount Pinault pledged, €200 million, for the reconstruction effort.6 As The Art Newspaper, such philanthropy towards state-run initiatives is highly unusual in France, where billionaires tend to focus on their own ventures rather than donate toward public projects.7 However, these billionaires are likely not being altruistic with their donations, as the competition in donations toward rebuilding the cathedral comes as the latest clash in a longstanding feud between the Pinault and Arnault dynasties.8 While The Art Newspaper noted that there are public benefits from such generous donations, backlash was swift and negative upon the announcements of these pledges, as the “mega-donations prove social problems could be quickly addressed if the wealthy were motivated to do so.”9 There was a deep irony to the timing of such pledges to rebuild the cathedral, as France has been plagued by class tensions lately, as displayed by the protests tied to the “Yellow Jacket” or “Yellow Vest” movement.10 Adding to the irony is the fact that President Macron had planned to give a speech the night of the fire addressing the populist concerns of the Yellow Vest protesters, but cancelled the speech to visit the blazing cathedral.11
Thus, the public outcry surrounding the billionaires’ donations seems well-founded, as these wealthy individuals appear to show they prioritize a landmark over the wellbeing of their fellow citizens.12 Fordham University School of Law Associate Dean Linda Sugin has written scholarship on the concept of “competitive philanthropy” and advocates for one-upmanship by having one philanthropist inspire other philanthropists to be even more generous.13 However, the Cathedral disaster and ensuing competition between billionaires to fund the reconstruction demonstrate that competitive philanthropy fails to yield optimal public benefit when the philanthropy is funding a cause that is not the most dire for society. Thus, we as a society should consider whether some charitable causes are more worthy than others and structure our public goodwill and even our government incentives and benefits – e.g. tax credits – to reward supporting causes that are deemed more of a social emergency than others. While the restoration of cultural heritage landmarks is, in my opinion, always a worthy cause to support, such philanthropy should not be given when France is suffering from far greater societal ills that have yet to be addressed.
Larry Buchanan et al., How the Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire Spread, N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/15/world/europe/paris-notre-dame-fire.html. [https://perma.cc/RWH9-98GQ]↩
Adam Nossiter, In Aftermath of Notre-Dame Fire, Macron Urges Unity in Fragmented Nation, N.Y. Times (Apr.15, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/world/europe/notre-dame-fire-investigation.html. [https://perma.cc/XJ4F-L27U];
See, e.g., Gareth Harris, Artist Wim Delvoye Enters Design Competition to Reconstruct Notre Dame, Art Newspaper (Apr. 18, 2019, 1:37 PM), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/artist-wim-delvoye-enters-notre-dame-design-competition. [https://perma.cc/933C-G57T]↩
Harris, supra note 2.↩
Video Game “Assassin’s Creed” Could Play a Role in Notre Dame Cathedral’s Restoration, CBS News (Apr. 17, 2019, 9:36 AM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-video-game-assassins-creed-could-help-in-its-restoration/. [https://perma.cc/9NJE-HET9]↩
Cristina Ruiz, Competitive Philanthropy Can Help Save France’s Flagship Cathedral, Art Newspaper (Apr. 16, 2019, 11:21 AM), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/notre-dame-benefits-from-the-battle-of-the-billionaires. [https://perma.cc/T7W6-AZVP]↩
Joel Shannon, Massive Notre Dame Cathedral Donations Draw High-Profile Backlash, Usa Today (Apr. 19, 2019, 8:12 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/04/18/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-billionaires-donations-spark-backlash/3514968002/. [https://perma.cc/KD7G-RDEM]↩
The “Yellow Vest” movement erupted in 2018 as French citizens took to the streets to protest a fuel-tax hike that had been proposed, although the complaints expanded beyond the government’s tax policy to include demands that President Macron change his approach to “housing, health, education and the public purse.” Kim Hjelmgaard, France Suspends Fuel-Tax Hike that Led to Violent ‘Yellow Jacket’ Protests, USA Today (Dec. 4, 2018, 7:00 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/12/04/france-yellow-jacket-tax-protests/2200073002/. [https://perma.cc/7JM3-UNUN] The protests were coined the “Yellow Vest” movement because demonstrators had been wearing the yellow vests as a “symbol of motorists’ discontent.” Id.↩
See Nossiter, supra note 2.↩
See Shannon, supra note 7.↩
See Linda Sugin, Competitive Philanthropy: Charitable Naming Rights, Inequality, and Social Norms, 70 Ohio St. L.J. 121, 121 (2018).↩