Members of France’s “Yellow Vest” movement claim the image of unbroken unity that arose in the aftermath of the inferno at Notre Dame Cathedral – and the $1 billion in donations that rolled in to help rebuild it – is being exploited by French President Emmanuel Macron, and vow to be out in full force this weekend protesting social and economic injustice in the country.
“Can you imagine, 100 million, 200 million in one click!” Philippe Martinez, the head of the militant CGT labor union, told The New York Times. “It really shows the inequalities in this country.”
The spectacle of rival billionaires publicly pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to help restore the famed cathedral quickly festered into resentment for some.
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“You’re there, looking at all these millions accumulating, after spending five months in the streets fighting social and fiscal injustice,” Ingrid Levavasseur, a founding leader of the movement, told The Associated Press. “It’s breaking my heart.”
She added, “What happened at Notre Dame is obviously a deplorable tragedy. But nobody died. I’ve heard someone speaking of national mourning. Are they out of their minds?”
The blaze that broke out at Notre Dame Monday captured the world’s attention and sent a shockwave through France, prompting Macon to vow to rebuild the cathedral in five years in a televised address to the nation.
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“It took him less than 24 hours to speak about the fire, while he made us wait for three weeks before addressing our issues,” Levavasseur said.
Decrying the struggles of low-paid workers and pensioners and accusing Macron’s government of favoring the rich, Yellow Vest activists — named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are required to keep in their cars — have been protesting for 22 consecutive weekends.
Frustrated by the lack of government response, Levavasseur has stopped attending demonstrations in recent weeks but told The Associated Press she’s considering protesting on Saturday because of an even greater sense of being ignored since the Notre Dame tragedy.
And she’s not the only one feeling this way.
“The Yellow Vests will show their anger against the billion found in four days for stone, and nothing for the needy,” wrote Pierre Derrien on the Facebook page of a Yellow Vests group based in Montpellier.
More than $1 billion has been pledged for the cathedral’s restoration, and many French citizens believe the money could be better spent elsewhere. Some have also criticized the billionaires’ donations because their pledges make them eligible for huge tax deductions. The Pinault family has said, however, they will not ask for a tax deduction for their donation to Notre Dame.
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In fact, taxes have been one of the most pressing issues of the Yellow Vest movement, which has lashed out at Macron for favoring the rich by eliminating a wealth tax as part of his economic stimulus plan, while average French workers have seen their living standards decline.
Anti-rich messages have flourished on social media in recent days as Yellow Vest protesters coordinated their action for the weekend.
“A little message for all the patrons (Pinault, Arnault and the others), hospitals are on strike because they lack means, so if you can make a gesture…” a Facebook user wrote.
Meanwhile, dozens of others exhorted wealthy donors to be more generous with France’s underclass.
“Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Miserables,” they wrote on their social media pages, quoting French writer Ollivier Pourriol and his droll reference to Hugo’s famous novels about the cathedral and the lives of the poor.
Tristan, a Yellow Vest supporter who declined to give his full name for fear of being identified by police after he was banned from traveling to Paris during weekends to attend demonstrations, prefers to stay away from the polemics.
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He made a $90 donation to Notre Dame — a lot of money for the 29-year-old, who works in construction. “I’m a Catholic, I’m a regular churchgoer, and I felt personally touched. Tears came to my eyes on Monday night.”
He added what shocked him the most was Macron saying the cathedral would be rebuilt in five years.
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“It’s obvious he never held a trowel in his life,” Tristan quipped.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.