PARIS — The billionaire French donors who publicly proclaimed they would give hundreds of millions to rebuild Notre Dame have not yet paid a penny toward the restoration of the French national monument, according to church and business officials.
Instead, it's mainly American and French individuals, via Notre Dame charitable foundations, that are behind the first donations paying the bills and salaries for up to 150 workers employed by the cathedral since the April 15 fire that devastated its roof and caused its masterpiece spire to collapse. This month they are handing over the first private payment for the cathedral's reconstruction of 3.6 million euros ($4 million).
"The big donors haven't paid. Not a cent," said Andre Finot, senior press official at Notre Dame. "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 France's church heritage.
People walk on the Archeveche Bridge, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, under repair after it was badly damaged by a huge fire on April 15, in the French capital Paris on May 31, 2019. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)
Francois Pinault of Artemis, the parent company of Kering that owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, promised 100 million euros ($112 million), 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 ($224 million), as did the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation of the L'Oréal fortune.
None of that money has been seen, according to Finot, as the donors wait to see how the reconstruction plans progress and fight it out over contracts.
The reality on the ground at Notre Dame is that work has been continuing around the clock for weeks and the cathedral has had to rely partly on the charity foundations to fund the first phase of reconstruction.
The Friends of Notre Dame de Paris was founded in 2017, and its president, Michel Picaud, estimates that 90% of the donations it has received have come from American donors. Indeed, Picaud just returned from a fundraising trip in New York.
A picture taken on May 31, 2019 shows scaffoldings set up on Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, under repair after it was badly damaged by a huge fire on April 15, in the French capital Paris. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)
"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.," Picaud said.
The first private check toward the rebuilding, according to Picaud, is being transferred by the foundations for 3.6 million euros ($4.1 million). That also includes funds from mainly small French donors, collected by the sister Notre Dame Foundation. The French state has also paid funds toward the massive consolidation operation.
While the billionaire donors delay signing their checks, the workers at the cathedral face the epic task of cleaning up the lead poisoning that has become an issue for the Parisian island on which Notre Dame is located.
An estimated 300 tons of lead that made up the cathedral's roof melted or was released into the atmosphere during the fierce blaze, which sent out toxic dust. The city's regional health agency says high levels of lead are now present in the soil of the island, the Ile de la Cite, and in nearby administrative buildings. It has recommended that all pregnant women and children under 7 living nearby take blood tests for lead after an abnormally high level was detected in a child in the area.
Two dedicated workers have been cleaning the toxic lead dust from the cathedral's forecourt for weeks, and up to 148 more have been cleaning inside and outside the edifice as well as restoring it, according to Finot.
Workers are building a wooden walkway so they can remove 250 tons of burnt-out scaffolding that had been installed before the fire for the ill-fated restoration of Notre Dame's spire. They will then replace the existing plastic protection with a bigger, more robust umbrella roof. After that, they will begin reconstructing the roof and vaulting.
Finot said this process will take months and will be paid in part by the Friends of Notre Dame and other foundations.
This comes as the French parliament is slowly debating amendments to a new law that would create a public body to expedite the restoration of the cathedral and circumvent some of the country's famously complex labor laws.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said the work should be completed within five years — a deadline that many French architects say is overly ambitious. Macron has appointed former army chief Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin to oversee the reconstruction.
A spokesman for the Pinault Collection acknowledged that the Pinault family hadn't yet handed over any money for the cathedral's restoration, blaming that on a delay in contracts.
"We are willing to pay, provided it is requested in a contractual framework," said spokesman Jean-Jacques Aillagon, adding the Pinault family plans to pay via the Notre Dame foundations.
The LVMH Group and the Arnault family said in a statement it was signing an agreement with Notre Dame's foundations and "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 that the multinational company has not paid anything yet. She said donors are 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 a voluntary donation, so the companies are waiting for the government's vision to see what precisely they want to fund."
While the cleanup and consolidation work now underway at Notre Dame is hugely important, it does not fit that description, said another foundation official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
That suggests wealthy donors want their money to go toward long-lasting, immortalizing structures and not on the ephemeral but equally vital tasks of cleaning and securing a site that poses real health risks for Parisians.
The Bettencourt Schueller Foundation said it, too, hasn't handed over any money because it wants to ensure its donation is spent on causes that fit the foundation's specific ethos, which supports craftsmanship in art.
Olivier de Challus, one of the cathedral's chief guides and architecture experts, said one of the reasons the rich French donors haven't yet paid is that there are still so many uncertainties about the direction of the reconstruction work.
De Challus said architectural experts are using digital models to try to establish how much damage the fire did to the cathedral's 13th-century stone, and whether its structures are fundamentally sound.
"It doesn't matter that the big donors haven't yet paid because the choices about the spire and the major architectural decisions will happen probably late in 2020," he said. "That's when the large sums of money will be required."