French tycoons show competitive streak over Notre Dame aid

Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH president Bernard Arnault, and his wife Natalia Vodianova, right, arrive at the damaged Notre Dame cathedral after the fire in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. French big French companies Total and L'Oreal are pledging to donate 200 million euros to support the reconstruction of Notre Dame cathedral. A few hours after billionaires tycoons Bernard Arnault and Francois Pinault announced they would give a total of 300 millions, oil and gas giant Total said the firm would contribute 100 million euros "to help the reconstruction of this architectural jewel." L'Oreal promised the same amount of money to rebuild "a symbol of French heritage and of our common history." Among other contributors, Bouygues construction group CEO Martin Bouygues said he and his brother Olivier would donate 10 millions. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS - Two of France's richest men, long locked in a very public rivalry, are once again pitted against each other — this time over flashy and competing donations to rebuild Notre Dame.

Billionaire luxury tycoons — Bernard Arnault, 70, and Francois Pinault, 82 — are among France's fiercest business competitors and patrons.

On Tuesday, their rivalry reached dramatic heights when it was announced Pinault, his son and their company Artemis would immediately donate 100 million euros ($113 million) to help finance renovations to Notre Dame after it was seriously damaged in an inferno during building works.

Hours later, Arnault shot back with an announcement that he, his family and his luxury company LVMH would pledge double that amount — 200 million euros ($226 million) — for the restoration of the church that was immortalized in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" — an eternal story of obsession and jealousy.

The famed rivalry of Arnault and Pinault, whose names rhyme, goes back decades.

"They're like competing boys, but the stakes run into the billions," said Long Nguyen, fashion editor at Flaunt magazine.

Arnault is France's — and Europe's — richest man and CEO of the world's biggest luxury group, LVMH, the owner of iconic fashion houses Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. Pinault founded the world's second-biggest, Kering, formerly PPR, that acquired rival brand Saint Laurent in a face-off.

"The Notre Dame donations are the latest in a long line ... They run competing fashion houses and both like the centre stage," he added.

Both men also possess a sizeable art collection — and a desire to show it off in competing museums.

Pinault's son Francois-Henri married actress Salma Hayek and is often in the society pages, while Arnault's son Antoine fathered children to supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

The two were reportedly on friendly business terms until the late 1990s. Some commentators have linked the souring of pair's relations to a bidding battle over the ownership of Italian fashion house Gucci, which eventually went to Pinault's Kering group.

Then, the battling turned to art.

Arnault opened the Louis Vuitton Foundation, designed by architect Frank Gehry, in 2014 to showcase his vast personal art trove in Paris' far western suburbs. Some critics have branded it a vanity project, with French media claiming that the glimmering building's final price tag came in at close to $900 million.

Meanwhile Pinault, who with his son is estimated to represent France's sixth fortune, is following hot on Arnault's heels and is set to open his multimillion-dollar contemporary art museum, the Collection Pinault-Paris, next spring.

Since 2001, Pinault has gradually been ceding control of his business interests to his eldest son Francois-Henri, 56, to concentrate on his art collecting. The museum, designed by another big-name architect, Tadao Ando, will display the octogenarian tycoon's personal contemporary art collection.

The website highlights its prime central location "in the very heart of Paris" in the city's former stock exchange.

The Bettencourt Meyers family, which owns cosmetics giant L'Oreal, and Total also each pledged 100 million euros to go toward the restoration over the 850-year-old cathedral.

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Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamson_K


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