Is The Reaction To Notre Dame Fire A Sign Of Our Society Slowly Dehumanising Itself?
On 15 April 2019, a devastating fire broke out in the centre of Notre Dame De Paris’ roof, leaving the world-renowned cathedral’s iconic spire and the roof severely damaged. The entire Paris was left aghast and mourning. Within two days of the fire, the French government had received nearly 850 million euros as various French families, French companies and some international corporations decided to stand by the government in reinstating the pride of Paris. While these hefty donations certainly bring some relief to the government and people of France, it also raises a daunting question: Why were these wealthy donors mute when a section of France had taken to streets its difficulty in making ends meet, owing to heavy taxation?
The contributions made to rebuild Notre Dame
The Notre Dame has since long been the apple of Paris’ eye. The recent fire that broke out in the cathedral has shocked a great number of people. But what came as a relief in this time of utter despair were the monetary contributions by some of the very successful businessmen like Francois – Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault. The French government has been able to garner nearly 850 million from various sources. The top donors are Francois – Henri Pinault, CEO of Kerik has contributed 100 million euros, while Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury company contributed 200 million euros, twice that of his business rival Pinault. CEO of Total, Patrick Pouyanne joined this list by announcing a contribution of 100 million euros.
The ‘Yellow Vest’ movement and the Notre Dame fire
On 17 November 2018, a protest that started off against the planned hikes in diesel taxes has now snowballed into a movement against not just unfair taxes but President Emmanuel Macron’s alleged elite-centred policies and stands as the biggest threat to his presidency. The protestors who majorly are workers on lower middle incomes claim they hardly have been able to make ends meet because of heavy and unfair taxation. They have adopted the high-visibility jackets as a symbol of their protest, hence the name ‘Yellow Vest’. Owing to this unprecedented movement of people protesting against economic inequality and demanding fiscal justice, President Macron was compelled to put his plans of tax hikes on hold. “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Jeanne d’Hauteserre, mayor of Paris’ 8th district, said.
The Notre Dame fire broke out right when the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement had gained considerable momentum in France. Shortly after the fire broke out, those who were turning a cold shoulder to the movement against economic disparity, jumped to donate magnanimously for the restoration of the cathedral. “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,” said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union. While a certain section of people in France are struggling to keep their families from sleeping hungry, some select families are stacking up enough money to give away hundreds of millions in a jiffy. The criticism intensified when Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former culture minister and now adviser to Mr Pinault’s father tweeted suggesting the state to offer 90% tax waiver to those contributing for the cause, instead of the usual 60% waiver given to those making charitable donations. In the background of the ongoing ‘Yellow Vest’ movement, Mr Ailagon was bound to be criticised mercilessly. The intensity of the backlash was such that Mr Aillagon had to announce on the radio that he retracts his suggestion. The Pinault family released a statement saying: “The donation for Notre-Dame de Paris will not be subject to any tax deduction. The Pinault family considers that it is out of the question to burden French taxpayers.” Arnault told his shareholders that his family holding company was not eligible for the tax deduction as it had already reached the threshold of tax deductions for charitable donations.
Manon Aubry, a senior member of 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 also sent a message to the wealthy donors, saying: “I want to tell them: Start by paying your taxes. That will add to the state culture budget.” 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 able to mobilise a crazy amount of dough overnight for Notre-Dame,” she added. “It’s an empty controversy,” Arnault said. “It’s pretty dismaying to see that in France you are criticised even for doing something for the general interest.”
How are the magnanimous donations to Notre Dame a reflection of a dehumanising society?
In February this year, the United Nations sent out an appeal to donate towards putting an end to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where nearly 80,000 children below the age of five years had already died. It needed $4bn to address the humanitarian crisis but could only garner $2.6bn. In 2017, when Calais, northern France witnessed a steady trickle of migrants, President Macron’s government failed to adopt a humane approach and offer them with basic necessities. They were denied water and toilet facilities too. They were abused by the police, as they routinely used pepper spray on the migrants. After extending such a hostile treatment to their fellow beings in desperate need, Macron reacts to the mishap at Notre Dame by saying, “I believe very deeply that it is up to us to transform this catastrophe into a moment to become — while reflecting deeply on what we have been, and what we should be — better than what we are,” on a national television. He also said, “So, yes, we will rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral, more beautiful than ever, and I want this to be finished in five years,” Mr Macron said. “We can do it, and we will mobilise to do so.” When did we start prioritising material over life? When did symbols of beliefs outpower the cries of fellow beings? Not that restoration of Notre Dame is an unworthy effort. It has been a great testament of human civilisation and architectural marvels, but does it hold more value than the lives of fellow humans is a question that haunts humankind and our current society. We are so engulfed into the production of materials that we are failing to see others as humans.