LVMH's billionaire boss Arnault defends Notre-Dame donations

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s richest man Bernard Arnault hit out on Thursday at critics of his rush to donate tens of millions of euros to the restoration of Notre-Dame cathedral, saying he would not benefit from tax breaks and branding the sniping as petty.

FILE PHOTO: Bernard Arnault, Chief Executive Officer of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, attends the company's shareholders meeting in Paris, France, April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Luxury goods group LVMH, owner of Louis Vuitton fashions and Moet & Chandon champagne, and its founding Arnault family announced a combined 200 million euros (£173 million) pledge hours after a fire on Monday ravaged the Paris landmark.

It followed a 100 million euro offer from Arnault’s arch rival Francois-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Gucci-owner Kering, and sparked a frenzy of donations from some of France’s top companies that pushed the funds raised to close to 1 billion euros.

But the outpouring also prompted questions from charities, politicians and commentators about why some corporate donors had offered so much so quickly, including speculation regarding tax break benefits. Some expressed frustration that other disasters had not received similar support.

Arnault told LVMH’s shareholder meeting that his family holding company was not at the moment eligible for tax breaks on charitable donations, which under French law can qualify for a 60 percent deduction.

He added the luxury goods company had hit its ceiling on tax breaks after those it received in recent years for building the Louis Vuitton Foundation.

“It’s an empty controversy,” Arnault said. “It’s pretty dismaying to see that in France you are criticized even for doing something for the general interest.”

Shareholders that were happy with the donation should to take to social media to show their support “for an act, which in many other countries, we’d be congratulated for,” Arnault said, to applause from investors.

Pinault’s family holding company said on Wednesday it did not intend to seek tax breaks on its donation. Pinault’s wife, actress Salma Hayek, also defended him in a post on Instagram.

“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,” she wrote.

Critics of the donations included worker unions in France, who said it was galling that funds could not be found for social problems.

“In one click, 200 million, 100 million ... it also shows the inequalities in this country”, Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of the CGT union, told Franceinfo radio on Wednesday.

Reporting by Pascale Denis and Sarah White; Editing by Richard Lough and Mark Potter