x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Napoleon may join the battle for France's theme-park visitors

"Only Napoleon could be a match for Mickey Mouse", says the director general of the French tourism development agency.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE // It may not seem a great rival for Disneyland Paris or the French capital's more traditional tourists traps, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

But that may be because no one has ever thought - or had the means - of creating a theme park dedicated to the life and times of the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Now, a French parliamentarian and historian has launched an ambitious plan to create such an attraction complete with battle re-enactments and digital gimmickry.

Yves Jégo, the mayor and member of parliament for Montereau-Fault-Yonne, just south of Paris and the scene of Napoleon's final military triumph, against the Austrians in 1814, believes the park could draw up to two million visitors annually.

He sees the emperor's name as a "milestone for humanity" and potentially a world brand.

And he has influential allies.

The president, Nicolas Sarkozy, nicknamed "Little Napoleon", is said to favour the idea and Christian Mantei, the director general of the French tourism development agency, Atout France, told The Economist: "Only Napoleon could be a match for Mickey Mouse."

Disneyland, with its neighbouring Walt Disney Studios Park, was visited by 15.7 million people last year.

Mr Jégo estimates a Napoleon park would cost up to €250 million (Dh1.2 billion), covering 100 hectares and providing employment, directly and indirectly, for as many as 3,000 people.

"One can think of simulated marches to Egypt and Russia, and battle re-enactments," he said. "The one condition would be that it should be modern, with attractive staging and digital aids."

The target date for opening is 2017. If something could be in place in time for the 2014 bicentenary of the Battle of Montereau, which is celebrated each February with thousands of townspeople taking part in period costume, so much the better.

First Mr Jégo needs to secure public and private investment for the project, although he feels this should be attainable, adding: "We have history on our side."

Napoleon Bonaparte, born on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica to Genoese nobility, is commonly associated in English-speaking history with military failure.

He was defeated at Waterloo and Trafalgar and driven out of Russia, dying in British confinement in the South Atlantic island of St Helena in 1821.

More objectively, he is also remembered for his achievements. Despite losing battles on land and at sea, he is widely regarded as having been a brilliant commander, often fighting numerically superior forces.

He also left behind much that is cherished in French society today: its baccalaureate high school-leaving certificate, now used in education systems beyond France, and an enduring legal, administrative and educational framework.

All the same, some critics are asking why, if France is to have a Napoleon theme park, should Germany not create a tourist site in honour of Hitler, or the Russians to commemorate Stalin?

Claude Ribbe, a French writer and human-rights activist of Caribbean origin, has spoken of Napoleon as a model for Hitler's war crimes, saying the emperor presided over a regime that used sulphur dioxide gas in the slaughter of more than 100,000 black slaves during revolts in Haiti, then known as San Domingo, and Guadeloupe at the start of the 19th century.

"In simple terms, Napoleon ordered the killing of as many blacks as possible in Haiti and Guadeloupe to be replaced by new, docile slaves from Africa," said Ribbe, whose account is challenged by many French historians.

"As for the good things Napoleon did, that is irrelevant. Hitler developed the autobahns and inspired the Volkswagen; are we supposed to excuse him for his war crimes?"

But another French writer, Agnès Poirier, said Napoleon was a "bundle of contradictions" who could be understood only with nuance and subtlety.

"The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror," she wrote in a blog posting for TheGuardian of London.

"More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for 'war tourism'.

"France is not only the world's first destination and Paris the most visited city in the world, figures show that visitors, French and foreigners alike, can't get enough of France's 155 war museums and lieux de mémoire [its memorial heritage]."

Charles Napoleon Bonaparte, a descendant of the emperor's younger brother, Jérome, sees the family legacy as "a product that works well".

He thought a theme park was "a very good idea in a world where leisure is so important … there is a way to describe this story in a fun way, with a new approach, a dynamic light show and less erudite [treatment]".

 

crandall@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse