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Billionaires raced to pledge money to rebuild Notre Dame. Then came the backlash.

As parts of Notre Dame's roof still smoldered on April 17, attention turned to rebuilding the cathedral. (Video: Reuters)

PARIS — The eventual reconstruction of Notre Dame is now a foregone conclusion. Within hours of the fire that destroyed much of the cathedral on Monday, donors pledged more than $1 billion to restore the Parisian icon to its former glory.

Even before the smoke had cleared, luxury goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault announced his family would donate 100 million euros ($112 million) to the effort. Not to remain on the sidelines, his rival Bernard Arnault — the chief executive of LVMH and the richest man in Europe — pledged twice that amount on Tuesday morning. The Bettencourt Meyers family, which controls L’Oreal, quickly matched that pledge. And Patrick Pouyanne, chief of executive of French oil giant Total, offered another $112 million.

Officials are still assessing the extent of the damage, so the cost of Notre Dame’s reconstruction remains unknown, but these and the many other donations coming in should pretty well cover it.

Graphic: Rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral

In the meantime, the cascade of cash that materialized overnight to save the cathedral has raised eyebrows in France, still in the throes of a crippling protest over rising social inequality and whose leader is regularly decried as the “president of the rich.”

“Of course, I find it nice, this solidarity,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, a leader of the yellow vest movement that has protested inequality in a series of often violent Saturday demonstrations since mid-November. The stream of donations essentially confirmed the movement’s broader social critique, Levavasseur said.

“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,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, said on Wednesday.

A day after a fire destroyed parts of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral, crowds gathered at the Paris landmark April 16 to pay their respects. (Video: Antoine Goldet, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post, Photo: Cyril Zannettacci/VU for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The cash flow has also furrowed brows abroad, with critics emphasizing that destroyed landmarks in non-Western locales — like the ancient sites destroyed by the Islamic State in Syria — have hardly inspired such a global groundswell.

“In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame,” South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison tweeted. “In six months, just 15 million euros has been pledged to restore Brazil’s National Museum. I think this is what they call white privilege.”

Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum was incinerated in a fire in September.

Before and after: Iconic Notre Dame scorched by blaze

Inside and outside of France, the unease has centered on a perceived disparity between concern for the fate of beautiful monuments and concern for the struggles of real people, which can be more difficult to sell to donors.

In February, for instance, the United Nations launched a record call for $4 billion in aid for Yemen, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. “Almost 10 million are just one step away from famine,” Secretary General António Guterres said in his pitch at a donor conference in Geneva. In the hours after his call, roughly $2.6 billion in pledges came in — a feat in itself. But still well short of the goal.

Notre Dame offers a striking contrast: No one was killed, no one is starving, but philanthropists probably provided the full amount — if not more — instantaneously and unprompted.

There was initial speculation that billionaire donors were contributing to Notre Dame to receive a generous tax break from the state. Typically, the French government allows corporations a 60 percent tax deduction on donations made in the realm of culture.

“Billionaires should pay taxes,” tweeted economist Julia Cage, “not give when they feel like it, benefiting from enormous tax breaks.”

Amid mounting criticism, some of the big donors defended their contributions. Both Arnault and Pinault said they were not looking for tax benefits.

Arnault told shareholders that his family holding company had already hit its ceiling on tax deductions for charitable donations.

“It’s an empty controversy,” Arnault said. “It’s pretty dismaying to see that in France you are criticized even for doing something for the general interest.”

The Pinault family similarly 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.”

Pinault’s wife, actress Salma Hayek, praised on Instagram the family’s “personal and heart felt participation in the reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris.”

“My husband and father in law are two generous french citizens, who sincerely understand the importance of this spiritual, cultural and historical treasure from Paris to the world,” Hayek wrote.

Washington Post readers share their memories of Notre Dame

Caroline Fourest, a French feminist and writer, said she thinks she understands the collective outpouring over Notre Dame, even though the nation’s mourning is different than after major terrorist attacks — at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and the Bataclan concert hall in 2015, at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice in 2016 and at a Christmas market in Strasbourg last December.

“There are similarities, mostly in the sense that we found a real communion, which was the case in Paris after the attacks,” Fourest said.

“It’s not the same loss or the same anguish, because no one died,” she said. “But with Notre Dame, we were afraid of losing a part of the beauty that makes living in Paris so sweet. There’s a sadness there.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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