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 US$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 ($168 million) to the effort. Not to remain on the sideline, 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 $150m.

Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife Salma Hayek pictured in May, 2015. The Pinault family were the first ones to pledge a sizeable donation the rebuild of Notre Dame Cathedral. Photo / AP
Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife Salma Hayek pictured in May, 2015. The Pinault family were the first ones to pledge a sizeable donation the rebuild of Notre Dame Cathedral. Photo / AP

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.

In the meantime, the cascade of cash that materialised 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."

Advertisement

"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.

Ingrid Levavasseur, centre, one of the leading figures of France's Yellow Vests protests which have been protesting inequality in France for months. Photo /AP
Ingrid Levavasseur, centre, one of the leading figures of France's Yellow Vests protests which have been protesting inequality in France for months. Photo /AP

"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.

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

"In just a few hours today, €650m was donated to rebuild Notre Dame," South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison tweeted. "In six months, just €15m 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.

Inside and outside of France, the unease has centred 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 US$4b 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 US$2.6b came in - a feat in itself. But still well short of the goal.

Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH president Bernard Arnault, and his wife Natalia Vodianova, right, visited the damaged Notre Dame cathedral after pledging €200m to the rebuild. Photo / Getty
Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH president Bernard Arnault, and his wife Natalia Vodianova, right, visited the damaged Notre Dame cathedral after pledging €200m to the rebuild. Photo / Getty

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

Advertisement

There was initial speculation that billionaire donors were contributing to Notre Dame in order to receive a generous tax break from the state. Typically, the French Government allows corporations a 60 per cent 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 criticised 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.

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."