Yellow Vests Protest the Stream of Donations for the Restoration of the Notre-Dame and the Neglect of Social Inequality

The cause of the fire is still unclear, but it could involve the renovation work being carried out at the site, the fire service said. Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Article by Sheridan Choi,

As the world comes to terms with the devastation of the Notre-Dame de Paris, more than $1 billion has been donated to help rebuild the cathedral. Some of the donors include the CEOs of French oil giant Total, LVMH Group, and Kering. The outpour of financial support to the restoration of the Notre-Dame cathedral has sparked debate over whether the donations could have been used to solve other problems. The Yellow Vest movement in France, which has been protesting social inequality for months, took to the streets to denounce the government’s prioritization of “stones” over “humans.”

The Notre-Dame Fire

On April 15, 2019, flames engulfed the centuries-old cathedral, partially destroying one of the most visited monuments in Western Europe. Around 13 million people visit the Notre-Dame each year to appreciate the French Gothic structure. To many, the cathedral symbolizes the “heart of Paris,” serving as a reference of distance in all of France. It represents French history and art and serves as a “physical symbol of Western civilization,” as stated by French analyst François Heisbourg, because of its old age and “combination of the secular, the sacred, and the profane.”

The fire started in the attic, a rarely visited space located above the arches. The dryness of the dusty attic created a flammable environment, and large wooden structures that provided structural integrity to the cathedral caught fire. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, though some believe it may be the result of an electrical short circuit. Investigators are currently unable to search for evidence due to safety concerns but are expected to look for cables or lights for clues.

Firefighters fought to extinguish the fire for nine hours, claiming the Notre-Dame fire to be one of the most difficult jobs undertaken. In the aftermath of the fire, people have voiced concerns about the cathedral fire-safety measures. The security guards’ failure to notice the fire until the flames were almost 3 meters tall suggests the fire alarm system sensors may have malfunctioned, and sprinklers had not been installed under the roof where the fire spread.

French President Emmanuel Macron enjoined the people of France to unite and inspire the rebuilding of the Notre-Dame, pledging to restore the cathedral in five years. Wealthy French benefactors contributed millions to the reparations, prompting demonstrations by citizens against their pro-business president and the wealthy’s response to the Notre-Dame fire and disregard for the rising problem of social inequality.

The Yellow Vest Movement

The Yellow Vest movement, nicknamed for the gilets jaunes worn by the protestors, started with people from rural France who couldn’t afford the rise in fuel prices as a consequence of President Macron’s proposed green tax. The protests spread throughout France, growing into a movement not exclusive to those from rural areas. The Yellow Vest movement joins those who are concerned with the declining standards of living, for which they condemn President Macron, believing him to be a president of the rich. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, the top one percent have experienced a doubling of average income between 1983 and 2015, while the other ninety-nine percent have experienced a rise by only one-fourth.

Some of the protestors’ demands include an increase in the minimum wage and the education reform. The movement is said to include people across the political spectrum, rejecting ties to parties and operating without leaders.

Although most protestors at road blockades are peaceful, some demonstrations have devolved into violent riots. In December, the Yellow Vests vandalized the Arc de Triomphe, demanding the resignation of President Macron. Demonstrators destroyed the statute of the Marianne, who symbolizes the French Republic. Others smashed artifacts with hammers, defaced the Arc with anti-government graffiti, and stole commemorative medals. In the fourth weekend of the protests, 126 people were injured in Paris and nearly 1,000 people were taken into custody across the country. People shattered shop fronts, set cars aflame, and clashed with police who used rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to quell the riots. As of December 22, 2018, there have been ten deaths as a result the movement.

Protests Regarding the Donations

As the rich fund the restoration of the Notre-Dame, many question the government’s prioritization of the cathedral over the growing issue of social inequality. The Yellow Vests’ anger over the government’s seemingly pro-business stance heightened, resulting in another violent uprising. One sign read: “Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes they do the same thing with Les Miserables,” as a reference to Hugo’s famous works on the plight of the poor. The movement’s message is clear: the government is ignoring the poor.

Protestors marched through Paris, setting fire to cars and barricades, throwing stones, and ransacking stores. Police deployed tear gas and water cannons to break up crowds and detained 189 people. The Interior Ministry estimates 6,700 protestors in Paris and a total over 10,000 nationwide.

Some have condemned President Macron, claiming he exploited the Notre-Dame fire for political advantage. President Macron had planned to announce measures in response to the Yellow Vests’ demands, including lower taxes and higher pensions, but canceled his speech as the Notre-Dame burned and instead called for national unity. He is expected to hold a press conference responding to the Yellow Vests, 6 PM local time on April 25th at the Elysee palace.