French Billionaires Waffle On Notre Dame Rebuild As US Donors Foot The Bill

French billionaires who promised nearly $1 billion to rebuild Notre Dame haven't contributed a single penny to the effort in the two months since they made their headline-grabbing commitments, according to the Associated Press, citing church and business officials. 

Instead, American donors have been footing the bills for up to 150 workers employed by the cathedral following the April 15 fire that destroyed its roof. Some $4 million collected via the charitable foundation of the Friends of Notre Dame is being handed transferred to the cathedral in the first payment to date towards the reconstruction. 

"The big donors haven’t paid. Not a cent," said senior Notre Dame press official Andrew Finot. "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."

Almost $1 billion was promised by some of France’s richest and most powerful families and companies, some of whom sought to outbid each other, in the hours and days after the inferno. It prompted criticism that the donations were as much about the vanity of the donors wishing to be immortalized in the edifice’s fabled stones than the preservation of church heritage.

Francois Pinault of Artemis, the parent company of Kering that owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, promised 100 million euros, while Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of French energy company Total, said his firm would match that figure. Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury giant LVMH that owns Louis Vuitton and Dior, pledged 200 million euros, as did the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation of the L’Oreal fortune. -Associated Press

Finot says the donors are holding out to see how the reconstruction plans are coming along and will fight over contracts. 

In reality, boots have been on the ground for weeks, with work continuing around the clock according to AP. Without a legal method to pay the workers, the cathedral has been relying on the charity foundation to fund the cleanup and phase-one of the reconstruction

Founded in 2017, the Friends of Notre Dame de Paris said that an estimated 90% of its donations came from Americans

"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 U.S.," said charity president Michel Picaud, who just returned from a fund-raising trip in New York and confirmed that the $4.1 million in donations is currently being transferred to cover the costs of the "first stage of restorations." 

While the billionaire donors delay signing their checks, the workers at the cathedral can afford no such luxury as the risk of lead poisoning has become an issue for the Parisian island on which Notre Dame is located.

The estimated 300 tons of lead that made up the roof melted or was released into the atmosphere during the blaze, and sent toxic dust around the island with high levels present in the soils and in administrative buildings, according to Paris’ regional health agency. It has recommended that all pregnant women and children under 7 take a blood test for lead levels.

Two dedicated workers have been cleaning the toxic lead dust from the forecourt for weeks, and up to 148 more have been cleaning inside and outside the edifice as well as restoring it, according to Finot. -Associated Press

At present, workers are constructing a wooden walkway which will allow them to access and remove 250 tons of burnt-out scaffolding which had been in place for a restoration of the cathedral's iconic spire which was lost in the fire. They will then replace temporary plastic roofing with a more robust "umbrella roof," after which the reconstruction of the actual roof and vaulting will commence with the midsection. 

French parliament, meanwhile, has been hammering out a new law which would create a "public body" to expedite the restoration of the cathedral in a way that would circumvent the country's notoriously bureaucratic labor laws. French President Emmanuel Macron says the rebuild should take five years, and has appointed former army chief Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin to manage the reconstruction. Critics say the timeline is unrealistic. 

Billionaires respond

Responding to AP, representatives from the billionaire donors confirmed that they're basically unwilling to contribute anything until designs are decided on, contracts are drawn up, and work is in progress. 

Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife, actress Salma Hayek, pose for photographers at the Cannes film festival in 2015. (Thibault Camus/AP)

A spokesman for the Pinault Collection acknowledged that the Pinault family hadn’t yet handed over any money despite the progress of works, blaming that on a delay in contracts.

“In short, we are willing to pay, provided it is requested in a contractual framework,” said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, adding that the Pinault family plans to pay via the Friends of Notre Dame.

The LVMH Group and the Arnault family said in a statement that it would also be working with the Friends of Notre Dame, that it was signing an agreement and that “the payments will be made as the work progresses.

Total has pledged to pay its 100 million euros via the Heritage Foundation, whose Director General Celia Verot, confirmed the multinational company has not paid a penny yet and is waiting to see what the plans are and if they are in line with each company’s particular vision before they agree to transfer the money.

How the funds will be used by the state is the big question,” Verot said.

"It’s not as brutal as it sounds, but it’s a voluntary donation so the companies are waiting for the government’s vision to see what precisely they want to fund. It’s our function as the intermediary to know that the money is directed in line with the donor’s wishes," added Heritage Foundation director Verot. 

Of course, it wouldn't take much to chip off a few million to pay the workers currently on-site before contracts are inked and plans are in motion. 

In short, wealthy French donors want their money to be spent on the 'long-lasting, immortalizing structures' and not the historical footnote of cleaning up the cathedral