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Magic Kingdom or 'Cultural Chernobyl'?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paris. -- The American Dream arrived just outside Paris this week in the form of the EuroDisney amusement park, and while France welcomed Mickey Mouse and his friends with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, some here are wondering if the presence of an American enclave in the heart of Europe will not turn into a nightmare.

Once proud of smirking at anything American, the French turned last Sunday's opening into a state occasion. The national press covered the inauguration as if it were one of the most important events in modern French history, and for weeks people seemed to have little else on their minds.

In fact, hardly a child can be found across the realm who has not heard of Mickey or who doesn't know that Sleeping Beauty has moved into a new castle to await her prince charming.

In what may be the most telling tribute, the Michelin guide has published a special book on the theme park, as though it were an independent country. That, some say, is the problem.

Marne-la-Vallee is the site of this $4.2 billion extravaganza. Situated 20 miles east of Paris and built over 4,800 acres, or roughly one-fifth the size of the French capital, EuroDisney stands amid beet fields in a region that until now was famous for its brie.

As Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and their friends settle into their new home and prepare to receive an expected 11 million visitors this year alone, their presence has led to the inevitable debate about the encroachment of American values into French life, proving that despite everything the French remain ambivalent toward the United States.

"At the core, America gives us the same effect as ice cream," the journalist Jacqueline Remy wrote recently in the weekly magazine L'Express. "It makes us sick, but we keep asking for it."

What the French are getting is an amusement park that is not much different from its predecessors in California, Florida and Tokyo, and one that takes little notice of the fact that it is located in the center of Europe.

As in the other Disney parks, visitors ride a Mississippi-style riverboat along the seemingly arid banks of the "Rivers of the Far West" in Frontierland, or hop aboard a steam-driven train to tour the imposing "Big Thunder Mountain." They walk down Mainstreet U.S.A., lined with boutiques and restaurants. And of course, they can visit Sleeping Beauty's castle.

None of this is very amusing to numerous French intellectuals, one of whom called EuroDisney a "cultural Chernobyl."

Yet except for the isolated voice of the French Communist Party and a handful of demonstrators who threw eggs and ketchup at Disney Company President Michael Eisner when he arrived in Paris in October 1989 to launch EuroDisney's stock on the Paris Bourse, there has hardly been a trace of anxiety at the arrival of such an American icon in France.

Until recently.

"A cultural Chernobyl, one could not say it better," Jaen Cau wrote, picking up the phrase attributed to Ariane Mnouchkine, a French director. "One that will contaminate millions of children (and their parents), castrate their imaginations, paw their dreams with greenish hands. Green, like the color of the dollar."

The debate focuses on the argument that allowing phenomena such as EuroDisney on French soil will prompt French culture to homogenize even more than it already has, that it will cause the French to revert to what has been termed the cults of "mercantilism" and "nihilism."

In the land of Louis XIV's real Castle of Versailles, some are asking, why do we need the fake one of Sleeping Beauty?

In recent weeks major French magazines such as L'Express and Le Point have run long cover stories on the influence of America in France. Everyone agrees it is there; the question is whether it is good, bad or indifferent.

"This may come as a surprise, but I don't feel attacked either by an outside enemy or by a hostile foreigner," Andre Glucksmann, a French philosopher, wrote about EuroDisney on the front page of the International Herald-Tribune last week.

Disney officials, while claiming they have made serious efforts to incorporate European culture into the park, do not appear to be much concerned by the criticism, confident the massive publicity and the power modern children exercise over their parents will do the trick despite the $40 entry price per person.

"Stop diabolizing America! What country, what culture influences the other? It does not seem to me to be that simple," Disney Company President Michael Eisner said recently.

One reason why officials do not appear concerned is that, unknown to almost everyone, the theme park represents only the first phase of a massive business, tourist and technology complex that will not be completed until the year 2017. Still to come are Disney's MGM Studios for Europe, commercial and shopping areas and office space. Additional hotels and a convention center are also planned.

The Socialist government, eager to attract EuroDisney to France and conveniently forgetting the rhetoric about American cultural imperialism that marked its first years in power, was more than happy to meet every demand the Disney Company made during the complex negotiations that resulted in a 400-page contract.

It allowed Disney, for instance, to have full control of any activity taking place within a 6-mile radius of the park, including decision-making powers over zoning and traffic control as well as police powers to maintain public order within the complex. Critics say this gives EuroDisney the same status as a duchy or principality.

Not only did the government agree to important financial and tax concessions to lure Disney to France rather than Spain, it also sold the land where the park now stands to the Disney Co. at a mere $2 per square foot.

The government also financed and built new highways, extended the RER regional express commuter railway to the park, and is currently building a direct line of its high-speed TGV train from the Channel Tunnel that will link Britain and France to Mickey's doorstep. If nothing else, Disney is certain to make millions in real estate.

But all is not well in the Magic Kingdom.

In January, EuroDisney's main contractors demanded extra money for extra work added after the agreements had been signed. The sum being asked, $154 million, is the largest France has ever known in a labor dispute.

The recruitment of "cast members," the name coined by EuroDisney to describe its workers, caused a scandal in France and resulted in a spate of negative publicity for the Disney Co. and American business practices in general. Disney was taken to court because the company's appearance code, which specifies, among other things, that women wear "appropriate undergarments" and men shave off mustaches and beards, is forbidden by French labor law and considered to be a violation of individual rights.

Those who have been given jobs are receiving wages under the national norm, but the 10 percent unemployment rate, representing nearly 3 million workers looking for jobs, gave Disney an unbeatable argument for allowing the project.

The park's very presence has caused serious problems in a peaceful agricultural region dotted with ancient villages. Traffic is expected to increase geometrically, and town people will have to put up with the constant passing of trains. The nightly fireworks, while they may not wake up Sleeping Beauty, are certain to disturb the area's residents.

Unparalleled population growth is also expected. The tiny hamlet of Magney-le-Hongre, for example, estimates its population will explode from 35 people today to 7,500 persons eight years from now.

All of this, however, is certain to be far from the thoughts of the millions of visitors eager to experience an imaginary America become reality in the heart of France.

Eduardo Cue is Paris bureau chief for United Press International.

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