THE biggest employer and taxpayer in the region of Seine-et-Marne is Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992, amid howls from French intellectuals about a “cultural Chernobyl”. Now comes the counterattack. Yves Jégo, a deputy from the Radical Party and mayor of Montereau, site of a Napoleonic victory, plans a new leisure park just 70km (45 miles) from Disneyland, to re-enact the emperor’s life and times.
Napoleonland will have the usual hotels, shops and restaurants. Harder to design are the activities and rides. This year marks the bicentenary of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign. Even this tragic story could become an attraction, reckons Mr Jégo. At Moscow’s gates, he suggested in a blog, visitors might don skis and glide down snowy battlefields and later across the Berezina river, scene of a disastrous battle, “surrounded by the frozen bodies of soldiers and horses”.
Napoleon is the best-known Frenchman after Charles de Gaulle, and is popular in Russia and China. Mr Jégo argues that the government has not catered to his millions of fans, at home and abroad. Although his vulgarly showy tomb is in Les Invalides in Paris, there is no national Napoleon museum. In 2005 the government boycotted the bicentenary of his victory at Austerlitz amid protests over his reintroduction of slavery in the French West Indies.
Mr Jégo’s team must raise some €200m ($255m) for the park, with construction planned to start in 2014. Russian and Middle Eastern investors are interested. Theme parks are a French political speciality: Puy du Fou, featuring medieval battles, Vulcania, a scientific park, and Futuroscope, boasting new technology, were all started by right-wing figures. Christian Mantei, head of Atout France, a tourism body backing the project, claims that bosses at Disneyland Paris once said that only Napoleon had the stature to take on Mickey Mouse.
The timing could be right, too. Gripped by pessimism and weighed down by debt and austerity, the French badly need a lift. In times like these, says Jean Tulard, a historian, “there is a nationalist reflex to return to the time when France was the strongest nation in Europe.” Many hoped Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, would be a Napoleonic figure, restoring French glory. But a theme park is better than nothing.