Wednesday 24 April 2019 7:49 am

The backlash against the Notre Dame donations reveals France’s culture of social envy

Dr Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and sociologist. His latest book, Dare to Be Different and Grow Rich, has recently been published.

Within the last week, French people have donated €1bn for the reconstruction of Notre Dame.

Most of the money has come from billionaires and large companies.

This has sparked a heated debate in France.

A leader of the Yellow Vest movement, Ingrid Levavasseur, criticised “the inertia of big corporations over social misery while they are showing themselves capable of mobilising a crazy amount of cash overnight for Notre Dame”.

Philippe Martinez, head of France’s largest trade union, CGT, said: “Now understand that there are billionaires who have huge amounts of money and in one click put 200m, 100m on the table. It shows the inequalities in this country, which we regularly demonstrate against.”

Such criticism has been widespread. On French breakfast television last week, a guest insulted the Notre Dame donors as “rich bastards”, and even the moderate newspaper Le Monde wrote that “too much is too much”.

One of those criticised is the billionaire Bernard Arnault. According to the World’s Billionaires ranking, Arnault is the wealthiest man in Europe and the fourth richest man in the world, with assets of €76bn. He was one of the first to promise a large donation – €2m.

He has responded that there is “pettiness and envy in the air”, saying “it is shocking that one is criticised in France when one stands up for the common good.”

Arnault might be shocked, but these reactions could be expected. Last year, for the first time, Ipsos Mori conducted an international survey on attitudes towards rich people for the study “Die Gesellschaft und ihre Reichen” (Society and its Rich People).

One of the questions addressed the motives of rich donors:

“Some rich people donate a great deal of money to charitable causes. In your opinion, what do you personally think is the main reason why people do that? Do they primarily donate because they want to benefit others, or primarily because they want to benefit themselves (e.g. for tax relief, to improve their reputation etc.)?”

In France, only 12 per cent of respondents thought that rich donors wanted to do something good for others – twice as many said they wanted to do something good for themselves.

Among those French people who, according to the survey, have pronounced feelings of social envy, as many as 44 per cent believe that the rich primarily pursue selfish motives with their donations, and only eight per cent saw predominantly altruistic motives.

As a comparison, in Britain, the proportion of respondents in the total population who consider that rich people mostly have altruistic motives is at least twice as high as in France – reaching 24 per cent.

One commonly heard assertion is that the rich only donate because they want to “save taxes”. All this shows is that those who make this claim cannot count.

Even if I could get a tax deduction of 100 per cent on a donation of €100m, eventually I would still have €50m less in my account (based on an assumed tax rate of 50 per cent) than if I had not donated. If the donation was not tax-deductible, the donor would probably have donated less as this effect is already taken into account.

But such concerns about tax avoidance are not the main driver behind the French people’s suspicions towards wealthy donors.

The international Ipsos Mori survey, in which dozens of questions were submitted to respondents, showed that the French have a particularly critical attitude towards rich people. Based on its findings, a Social Envy Coefficient was calculated, making it possible to measure how strong social envy against rich people is in a country.

According to this coefficient, social envy is highest in France with a score of 1.26, followed by Germany with 0.97. It is significantly lower in the US (0.42) and the UK (0.37).

Against this backdrop, the negative reactions of many French people to donations from billionaires are not surprising.

The critics should be asked the following question: would it be better if the billionaires had not donated to Notre Dame’s reconstruction?

Ultimately, when someone does good, they should not be judged according to whether they do it for the sake of enhancing their image or whether other motives play a more important role.

Someone can donate for wonderfully altruistic reasons but end up funding meaningless projects, or donate purely for selfish reasons but end up helping people and making a real difference. It is the effect that matters, not the motive.

Those who scorn rich donors should think about whether this antagonism might reduce the willingness of such people to do so. After all, who likes to be insulted for a good deed?

And would either French society or Notre Dame really be better off if these donations stopped coming?

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.