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Cathedral of Notre Dame: American donors and French cultural heritage

As we are waking up, with deep emotion, to the destruction of this symbol of our cultural heritage, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, this Tuesday April 16th 2019 was marked by many giving pledges.

Given the terrible disaster caused by the fire, French public authorities, as well as donors, are taking action. The Ile de France Council has announced a gift of 10 million euros, the Paris City Hall a contribution of 50 million, as well as a “major international donors’ conference”. Companies and wealthy French people have also announced their pledges: LVMH and the Arnault family (200 million euros), François-Henri Pinault (100 million), the Total company (100 million), Martin and Olivier Bouygues (10 million personally), the Bettencourt family and L’Oréal (200 million), and Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière (10 million “for the restoration of the flèche”). Others will follow. The Fondation du patrimoine has opened an online fundraising campaign, while Leetchi or Lepotcommun fundraisers are multiplying and a major fundraising concert will be organized on Saturday evening by France 2 Television.

As we look at these spectacular giving pledges by families and companies, one should be reminded that it is the French taxpayers who will, indirectly, participate in the reconstruction effort of Notre-Dame, thanks to the tax deductions offered to donors: for companies, the law offers a 60% reduction on corporate income tax (and a 66% reduction on income tax for individuals), capped at 0.5% of turnover, with the possibility of benefiting from a staggered tax advantage over five years. These donations are thus the expression of the hybridization of private and public action that is at work here. Some even call for greater tax exemption for the great national cause of rebuilding the Cathedral - as evidenced by the proposal of Jean-Jacques Aillagon, currently director of the Pinault collection, to decree Notre-Dame as a “national treasure” to benefit from the 90% tax deduction provided for by the law on philanthropy known as the “Loi Aillagon” (1). These questions generate controversy, about the relevance of tax deductions and their capping as well as about the amounts announced and which we understand were available, all the more as this happens in a difficult context for the sector, since the disappearance of the wealth tax (ISF).

But giving pledges are also flowing from abroad: many foreign donors are stepping in, wishing to contribute to the reconstruction of this treasure of the world’s cultural heritage. The Hungarian city of Szeged has announced a donation of 10,000 euros, the King of Krindjabo, capital of the Kingdom of Sanwi, in southeastern Côte d’Ivoire will make a donation for the reconstruction of the cathedral, and they are not the only ones (2). The Director of UNESCO announced technical support for the reconstruction. Other initiatives, particularly in the United States, are emerging. French Heritage Society, an American organization dedicated to the preservation of French cultural heritage treasures, has launched a web page to raise funds (3). Similarly, a US donation of $10 million was made by Henry Kravis, co-founder of the KKR investment fund, and his wife (4).

However, raising funds in the US is not a new activity for Notre-Dame, as it began before the fire, through a very unique organization: the “Friends of Notre-Dame”. To understand how it was born, let us go back in time. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which will be 854 years old this year and is one of the most visited monuments in the world (with more than 14 million visitors per year), was in a particularly bad state. After an audit in 2014, it was decided that restorations were urgently needed, to be implemented within the next five to ten years. Work had begun in 2018, under the responsibility of Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect in charge of these restorations.

The cost of the restorations was estimated at 100-150 million euros. The French government had pledged to contribute 2 million euros every year, but fundraising was going to be necessary. Yet Americans are among the most numerous visitors to this monument and some of them have approached the administration of the cathedral to offer to contribute financially to the restorations. This is how the idea of creating, in the US, a structure to raise funds for the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral emerged. It made all the more sense as there is a special relationship between Americans and this monument – we can point out that that it was in front of Notre-Dame that many American GIs celebrated the Liberation of Paris after World War II, while its monumental bells rang in the liberated capital.

The “Friends of Notre-Dame” organization was created in 2017 by the Archbishop of Paris and the Diocese of Paris to help restore the monument. In this U.S. fundraising campaign, the late Andrew Tallon, who was co-author of a book on Notre-Dame de Paris and Professor of Art at Vassar College in New York State, played a decisive role, as well as some of his students, notably creating a 3D scan of the cathedral (5), which is said today to be a key tool in its reconstruction. Several fundraising events were organized by the Friends of Notre-Dame in November 2017 and April 2018, - as explained by its director Michel Picaud -, in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, around lectures by keynote speakers as well as a photographic exhibition retracing the history of Notre-Dame.

However, the “Friends of Notre-Dame” are only the tip of the iceberg of a much broader phenomenon of French (and European) cultural institutions raising funds in the United States. There are now about thirty American Friends groups for French institutions, in the arts, but also in other fields (universities, research centers, etc.), and more than a hundred in Europe. American Friends, which benefit from the 501(c)(3) status under American law, allow Americans to make donations to foreign institutions, while benefiting from tax deductions. They are now a large-scale and growing phenomenon (6).

While other foreign donors gave to French cultural institutions (Russia offered the Christmas tree of Notre Dame in 2014), American generosity towards France is a long story. It dates back to John D. Rockefeller’s 1924 donation to the Château de Versailles, the Château de Fontainebleau and the Reims Cathedral, but is more broadly part of the American contribution to France’s reconstruction after the First and Second World Wars. This American generosity is now being institutionalized through these American Friends groups, based on an attractive tax system and on the special relationship that exists between American elites and Europe. And this generosity is present today once again to allow this eternal symbol, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, to be reborn from the ashes.

(1) Article Le Monde, « Dons pour Notre-Dame de Paris : ‘C’est la collectivité publique qui va prendre en charge l’essentiel du coût’ », 16 Avril 2019
(2) Article Le Figaro, « Notre-Dame: près de 700 millions d’euros déjà donnés par les entreprises et les grandes fortunes », 16 Avril 2019
(3) Article Le Monde, « Notre-Dame de Paris : cagnottes, promesses de dons et souscription nationale pour financer la reconstruction », 16 Avril 2019
(4) Article Le Figaro, « Notre-Dame: près de 700 millions d’euros déjà donnés par les entreprises et les grandes fortunes », 16 Avril 2019
(6) See the book by Anne Monier on American Friends groups, to be published in September 2019 by the Presses Universitaires de France

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