A firestorm of backlash arose after more than $1 billion in donations poured in within just two days of the iconic cathedral catching fire. But what does this say about French culture going forward?

On April 15th, the wooden roof of Notre Dame de Paris (one of the symbols of Paris and a beloved cathedral featured in many novels and musicals) caught fire and it nearly destroyed the whole building. The collapse of the blazing spire will always be kept as a memorable reminder of what the Ancient Romans used to call "memento mori." Nothing lasts forever.

The cause of this disaster is still unconfirmed, but sources suggest that it might be linked to the restoration in progress.

The cathedral had been in bad condition after decades of weather and pollution damage, as well as poor maintenance. Only recently a sum of around 150 million euro was gathered to ensure the restoration of the jewel of Paris, mainly funded by the French State as the institutions struggled to find financial support by private donors.

Funding Notre Dame 

That very night the tragedy unfolded and that firefighters were challenged by high flames, the Pinault family announced, through the family company Artemis, an offer of 100 million euro  for the restoration to its old glory of one of the world's most renowned churches.

The Pinault family opened the gates to a massive flow of donations as Bernard Arnault LVMH announced the following morning a contribution of 200 million euro, then the L'Oréeal Bettencourt family joined and after a couple of days the total sum reached 850 million euro for the painstaking restoration of the symbol of France.

The day following this dramatic event several voices, critical about these donations, were raised. Some criticized the speed of the donations on the wake of such an emotional catastrophe, considering beforehand the institutions struggled to put together enough funds for a maintenance project. Other speculations focused on whether the French donors could benefit in terms of image or in terms of tax.

Some on social media suggested the money could have been better spent on projects involving people in difficulty or climate change. Some underlined that behind these donations were political motivations as these companies supported France President Macron and his reputation.

Charitable donations benefit from a 60 percent tax deduction, which is an intriguing angle to look at the situation from.

Without doubt, French titan luxury groups were willing to help a French, Parisian cause. We shouldn't forget that Paris is the first capital in the world for luxury shopping, and one of the best destinations for the most sought- after luxury consumers target in the world: the Chinese.

Opposing Views

A few days ago, Pamela Anderson abruptly left a charity dinner in Marseille, France, when she discovered that the money collected for Notre Dame was twice as much raised for local disadvantaged children. She said the suffering children could have used the €100,000, more than the church, which has already received almost a billion euro in donations.

A sensitive point on this situation can be the quick reaction to this emergency and why the same groups have not previously financed the maintenance project of Notre Dame de Paris with their available funds. Very likely the emotive image of the burning cathedral has played out as a very powerful incentive.

Some critics have also posited the hope that there won't be a plaque positioned in the church giving acknowledgement to the donors. But this is not the way it always worked.

Global Perspective 

Churches and monuments in one of the most artistic countries in the world like Italy have been restored thanks to private donations. And they are full of chapels, plaques and people buried inside thanks to their donations.

Italian fashion brands have invested heavily during the past years in order to contribute to the restoration of the Italian artistic beauties.

Fendi sponsored the restoration of Rome’s Trevi Fountain donating 2.5 million euro, and held a beautiful show in 2016 to celebrate the renewed beauty of this Roman monument, which became globally renowned thanks to Federico Fellini’s movie "La Dolce Vita" where a stunning Anita Ekberg took a night dive in the fountain.

Tod's offered 25 million euro at the same time, dedicated to the Colosseum restoration, another great symbol of the Eternal City.

Diego Della Valle, Tod's Group founder pronounced, "I'm a very proud Italian, and my group too," he says. "It's because of love for one of the most important Italian monuments - representing Italy all around the world. When we are able to contribute, why not?" and he added, "It's not about who has made the biggest donation or who started the first one. It's about the message we send. It's a generous approach that we have taken and I hope people will follow what we have done. The next step for businessmen around the world is to do many things for the others, especially when the company is strong."

Bulgari recently funded the refurbishment of the Roman Baths of Caracalla and the Spanish Steps, key places in the heart of the company's founders, whose store in Via Condotti is just metres from the historic sites.

"For us, it symbolises the journey of our founding family," said Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin.

"It's a mission, somehow," he confirmed. "It's beautiful that companies contribute as well to restore the glory of the city that hosted us from the beginning."

Brunello Cucinelli headquarters in Umbria are hosted in a 13th century tiny village called "Borgo Solomeo". The luxury founder restored the whole village and resisted any temptation to move the business to Milan.

"We've governed our enterprise feeling that we're 'custodians', and not owners," says Cucinelli. "I've always thought that the mere profits of an enterprise aren't enough if there isn't a higher purpose. This is why, through the Brunello and Federica Cucinelli Foundation, we try to support projects that aim to 'embellish humanity'."

These are examples of the fact that Italian brands deeply care about their heritage and mother country,and are aware that contributing to its well-being will benefit the business.

Renzo Rosso, the patron of Diesel, funded the restoration of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, investing 5 million euro.

A month ago, after two years and 1.5 million euro of donation, Ferruccio and Giovanna Ferragamo with company CEO Micaela Ledivelec Lemmi, unveiled the restored Fountain of Neptune placed in the heart of Florence, in front of Palazzo Vecchio.

Ferruccio Ferragamo, son of Salvatore and Wanda - and Chairman of the Group defined the donation as a "tangible expression of our gratitude to Florence."

French Acceptance?

While patronage of the arts in Italy, the UK and the U.S. is very common and very appreciated, France still has to make a step forward into the acceptance of private donors’ involvement and the relative visibility tha arises from these donations.

Since the times of François Mitterrand's "grandes oeuvres" - entirely sponsored by the French State and representing the contribution of every single tax payers, they are finding accepting private intervention a difficult concept to embrace..

In this case, it could have come before, but better late than never. Hopefully this tragedy will teach the wealthiest groups in France to take more care of their heritage, and it will be just the first step to a different approach taken by the luxury groups.

If it remains an isolated episode, it will fail to leave a mark in French culture. But if it represents the first step of a bigger involvement of French brands investing in their own heritage, it will have a massive impact on France and the entire world.

Cover image credit: Unsplash


About the author

Susanna Nicoletti

Brand Catalyst and Founder of LuxFashion

Susanna Nicoletti is a Marketing, Digital and Communication Senior Executive in the fashion and luxury industry with a track record in top global groups and brands.

A Brand Catalyst helping fashion and luxury brands building authentic leadership thanks to long lasting, strong Brand Equity and successful Business Growth Management.

A Business and Strategy Writer. Explorer of new luxury and fashion marketing frontiers.