Mickey Mouse to set up house in France. But some worry about effect on French culture

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Mickey Mouse eating a croissant? The once fantastical idea will become a reality within five years following the signing Wednesday of a tentative agreement between Walt Disney Productions and the French government to build the first European Disneyland 20 miles east of here in Marne-la-Vall'ee.

France won out over stiff competition from Spain and the victory left the French brimming with pride -- despite some fear that Mickey could harm its culture.

Disney's decision has highlighted the growing gap here between a public eager for American culture and an intellectual elite which continues to fear it.

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France has become one of the biggest markets for Disney films and a weekly Disney television series draws a large audience. Headlines announcing Wednesday's accord reflected this general acceptance, describing the imminent arrival of the Disney park as ``a wonderful Christmas gift.''

But individual editorialists reflected a different, disdainful tone. A few years ago, Culture Minister Jack Lang expressed the sentiment that French culture was being submerged by a wave of exports from the United States and called for a ``crusade'' against American ``cultural and financial imperialism.''

In that vein, Gerard Deupuy of the daily Lib'eration wrote that Disney would bring to France something ``as emphemeral as a page of comic strips.'' Richard Liscia of the daily Le Matin went further, arguing that Disney will ``deform generations of French children.''

The French government doesn't listen to such arguments. It badly wants the huge economic advantages of the park.

The project will be one of the biggest construction projects in Europe. Total investment will be between 10 and 15 billion francs ($1.3 billion to $2 billion). The park, with its hotels, parking lots, and other facilities, will be spread over 4,000 acres. About 6,000 people will be employed in the construction phase and between 20,000 and 25,000 workers will man the park when it opens. Disney officials estimate that once the park opens in 1990, it will draw 10 million tourists a year.

Richard Nuniss, president of Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Disney International, says Paris was chosen over Barcelona or Alicante, Spain, because of its greater tourist potential. Some 30 million people live within a radius of 400 miles of Paris, and the city boasts better air, rail, and auto connections than the Spanish sites.

French authorities overturned many old business practices in their enthusiasm to capture Disney. At the beginning of negotiations, French officials said they were concerned that the Americans would become frustrated in the maze of the French bureaucracy. To ensure the coordination of many different agencies, the government appointed a single negotiator to handle everything.

``We had no problems at all with the administration,'' Nunnis said. He also refuted other issues which reportedly concerned the company in considering the French site. The French reputation for rudeness? ``If you smile at them, they will smile at you,'' he said.

The French fear of cultural domination? ``I hope Minister Lang will come visit us in Walt Disney World,'' Nunnis responded. ``Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse are universal. They bring happiness throughout the world.''

Nuniss didn't say so, but the implication was clear: Mickey Mouse will be just as happy munching a croissant as a hamburger.

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