The shock and mourning sparked by Monday’s devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral is quickly giving way to a determined philanthropic effort, solicited by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to restore the centuries-old edifice to its former glory. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, donors in France and around the world pledged almost a billion euros for renovations, including 565 million from the Arnault, Bettencourt Meyers and Pinault families — France’s three richest dynasties.
A commonplace thought is that such generosity deserves our immediate gratitude. Opening up one’s wallet to the tune of millions of euros at a moment’s notice is no small thing, after all. And directing private assets to support a treasured national symbol — the beating heart of France — might seem not only generous but downright patriotic.
But commonplace thoughts aren’t always right. As I discuss in my new book on philanthropy, giving becomes political when a society facilitates it through tax breaks and encourages it through private and corporate foundations. And any kind of big philanthropy is an exercise of power by the wealthy, the direction of private asset toward some public purpose. As money pours in to rebuild Notre Dame, we should ask some hard questions about these philanthropists, just as we ought about any big donor. Here are three.
The Notre Dame donors may get a big tax break
First, how much are French donors receiving in tax breaks by giving to repair Notre Dame? French law permits individual donors a 66 percent tax deduction for their contributions, while corporations receive a 60 percent deduction (subject to taxable income limits in both cases). If a rich Parisian gives $1 million to restore the cathedral, the donation might only cost $340,000, with French citizens paying for the rest in the form of foregone tax revenue.
The former French culture minister and current adviser to the Pinault family, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, audaciously proposed that corporate contributions to Notre Dame be granted a 90 percent tax concession, only to withdraw it a few hours later.
And because the deduction is only available to those who are taxed on their income, and more than 50 percent of French taxpayers do not pay income taxes, when a middle class or working class person makes a donation — and a great many have done so — they have to pay full cost.
The lesson is that if we are to celebrate the generosity of donors, we should acknowledge that French citizens are in fact paying for the majority of the giving in the form of tax subsidies. It’s not just giving, it’s giving that is underwritten by the public. What’s more, philanthropic tax incentives give power to individual donors, especially ultrawealthy ones, to dictate large amounts of government spending, regardless of other citizens’ spending priorities. The Yellow Jacket protests in Paris have highlighted popular resentment of the Macron government’s elimination of a wealth tax and its diminishment of the state’s substantial social services. Evidently some French citizens would prefer that the government tax the wealthy and secure the safety net, but the structure of charitable tax deductions means that they won’t receive much of a choice in the matter.
Will there be strings attached?
A second question about philanthropy in the context of Notre Dame concerns how the restoration itself is managed: What strings, if any, will wealthy donors be permitted to attach to their gifts? Will well-heeled donors be given power over architectural decisions, naming rights, or special access to Notre Dame after renovations are complete? Notre Dame is a brand-conscious philanthropist’s dream funding opportunity: just imagine entering the cathedral with a visit the Pinault Visitor Center, or gazing upon the beautifully restored Arnault Spire. Or perhaps stones emblazoned with the names of big donors will be laid down.
Americans are already familiar with such behavior. When a 2011 earthquake damaged the Washington Monument, the private equity tycoon David Rubenstein offered millions for renovation, draping himself in the majesty of the iconic obelisk and joining National Park Service officials at its reopening and claiming, perhaps in jest, to inscribe his initials at the very top.
Will there be an implicit political payoff?
Last and most important, what say will large donors to Notre Dame now have in a Macron government? Will patriotic philanthropy purchase political access and influence? The David Rubenstein example is instructive. In return for his patriotic philanthropy, which also includes donations to the Lincoln Memorial, Monticello and the National Zoo, Rubenstein was in 2012 named a Washingtonian of the Year. His status as a civic benefactor might have helped make him into an amazingly effective lobbyist for plutocrats: among other accomplishments, Rubenstein infamously helped defeat an effort to repeal the carried-interest tax break for private equity — one of the tax loopholes that contributed to his wealth in the first place.
It’s easy to shower praise on donors to Notre Dame. It’s more difficult to subject their philanthropy to scrutiny and to ask uncomfortable questions about tax breaks, naming rights, and political access and influence. Giving — like happy children, ice cream and beautiful sunsets — looks entirely uncontroversial and nonpolitical: Who could possibly object to it? In fact it turns out to involve difficult and complicated political trade-offs. We should indeed look a gift horse in the mouth.
Rob Reich is professor of political science at Stanford University and author of “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better” (Princeton University Press, 2018).